Posted by Marsha Frankel

What happens to the mean girls and bully boys that we have been hearing so much about? Unfortunately too many of them grow up and continue to bully others - even into old age and into assisted livings and nursing homes.

Recently I had the opportunity to speak at a conference for nurses, social workers, and administrators who belong to the Massachusetts Assisted Living Facilities Association. My topic was "Creating a Caring Environment that Reduces Bullying." Researching the topic of older adult bullying was eye-opening as I learned that 10-20% of elders in assisted livings and nursing homes experience some type of abuse from fellow residents. And this doesn't include the staff that often experience bullying from both residents and family members. One nurse at the conference spoke of the young aide who was screamed at by an elder and her daughter because the resident's bed was made with unmatched sheets. The daughter pulled all the bedding off the bed and threw it at the intimidated young aide. I have heard elders yell at a young server in an assisted living dining room for not serving them quickly enough. This older man screamed racial slurs and called the teenage server "an idiot."

Bullying among older adults gets less attention generally than among children and adolescents because it is generally verbal rather than physical. Usually it involves behaviors such as shunning/excluding someone, "You can't sit here - I am saving this for a friend," or sarcasm and pointed comments targeting their victim or spreading gossip and rumors. However, it can lead to physical violence as in the September 2009 case of a 100-year-old nursing home resident in Dartmouth, MA, who was killed by her 98-year-old roommate. The 98-year-old thought her roommate was "taking over the room" and was reportedly jealous at the number of visitors the victim had. Fortunately bullying in older adults doesn't usually lead to such tragedies but it all too often creates great distress for the victims and can cause or increase depression and anxiety.

My training goal was to help the staff recognize that everyone in their facilities (all staff, residents, and families) needs to be committed to promoting equality and respect and to have zero tolerance for bullying. We discussed strategies for empowering staff to recognize that someone may be experiencing bullying and to effectively intervene when bullying occurs.

At all ages empathy is the best antidote for bullying. Hopefully the new emphasis in schools on preventing bullying will make the next generation of older adults more empathic and ensure that there will be one less indignity that our elders need to fear.

Marsha Frankel, LICSW, is the Clinical Director of JF&CS Senior Services. She has many years of direct and consultative experience working with older adults in a variety of settings.