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Sometimes it takes a while for the law to catch up with common sense, as in: Bullying is abusive no matter whether the target is a child or a frail older person.

A new law to this effect was approved this year by the Missouri General Assembly and took effect in August. It expands definitions of bullying to specifically include senior adults.

This holiday season, when so many families pay respect to their elders among them, is a good time to spread the word about this legislation that increases protections for some of our most vulnerable citizens.

The law makes clear bullying of an elderly person, whether perpetrated by one person or a group, is elder abuse. Bullying is defined as intimidation or harassment that causes a reasonable person to fear for his or her physical or emotional safety or property.

The law specifies bullying can involve physical actions including gestures; cyberbullying; oral, electronic or written communication; and any threat of retaliation for reporting of such acts.

This squares with previous law that defines elder abuse as willful infliction of injury, unreasonable confinement, intimidation or punishment with resulting physical harm, pain or mental anguish. Previous law further defines abuse as something one does intentionally, or through carelessness, that results in harm.

In a long-term care setting, for example, a frustrated attendant might take out his or her anger on a patient, including using abusive or threatening language. To the degree this behavior fits the legal definition of bullying, it is elder abuse.

This same scenario can play out in private residences, including both homes and apartments, where the elderly are tended to by caregivers or family members.

One sponsor of the enabling legislation noted Missouri already labeled bullying as wrong for children, and his bill simply made it a crime to bully seniors as well. He said he wanted to make it equally clear that bullying Missouri’s most vulnerable is unacceptable.

Consider this a message received and greatly appreciated by those who care for the welfare of the state’s elderly.

To report a suspicion that an elderly or disabled person is being bullied, abused, neglected or financially exploited, call a toll-free state hotline, 800-392-0210, from 7 a.m. to midnight seven days a week.

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