When people think of bullying behavior, most flash back to a more distant time and place, and to visions of mean kids they recall from the playground. But bullying is also becoming a burgeoning problem among those we thought were old enough to know better: seniors, especially those living in group residences — from independent living to nursing facilities. Experts estimate that at least 20% of the older adults in such facilities have been mistreated by their peers, a number likely lowballed since so many remain mum due to shame or fear of retaliation.
A Problem in Need of a Cure
Dr. Patrick Arbore, of the Institute on Aging in San Francisco, was delivering a talk on some far more mundane subject at a senior housing complex a few years ago, and into the final Q and A portion when a gentleman raised his hand to ask a question that had just been asked and answered.
That provoked the ire of another audience member, who stood and soundly berated the questioner: “You never bother to pay attention!”
The man who was rebuked rushed from the room — and Arbore paused his presentation to follow and talk with him. He found the man in the hallway outside his mailbox, where he had just retrieved a handwritten note someone had left inside with the words: “Please don’t come to this lecture. You’ll just ruin it for others.” In tears, the man explained to Arbore that suffered from a worsening hearing loss — one that can’t be helped by hearing aids. It was also causing him to be ostracized and feel isolated.
“I am fiercely lonely,” the man said. “You have no idea what it feels like.”
When Arbore reentered the meeting room, he changed the focus of the forum based on what those in the room had just witnessed: senior bullying. His talk on the topic is now in such popular demand that it was recently filmed to save him the wear and tear of traveling to all the facilities that clamor for it.
“The thing about being human is we are all social creatures. There is nothing that feels worse than being outside the group,” says Arbore. “And among older people, it’s especially important to pay attention to how bullying behavior links to the loneliness it often causes.”
‘Just Learn to Get Along’
Arbore recounts another anecdote about an 87-year-old resident he had counseled who was living in an independent living facility. A frail woman who moved about gingerly with the help of a walker, she noticed a resident who had been away for a while had returned and went to greet him at a nearby table in the dining room. A 97-year-old woman, also seated at his table, reared up and pushed her harshly, shouting: “Get away! You have no right to be here!”
Staff in the dining room did nothing to intervene. And the woman, in psychological and physical fear of the resident who accosted her, now eats alone in her room every night and carefully checks the hallways on the rare occasions she leaves it. She did eventually did tell the facility administrator about her dilemma. But he only responded dismissively: “You girls will just have to learn to get along.”
Arbore says: “Dining rooms can be battlegrounds in terms of territory.” And sharing territory can be one of the irking challenges for seniors — many of whom have moved from larger private quarters to a more cramped communal living situation. Other common sites for bullying behavior: TV rooms, bingo games and other community events, especially those with limited space and inadequate staffing.
While dementia and adverse reactions to medications can sometimes be the sources of unchecked behavior in older people, true bullies simply like to dominate, to use other people to get what they want or attempt to achieve a status they never got. In most cases, no one has attempted to correct them, so the bullying behavior becomes a way of life.
The Look and Sound of Bad Behavior
As with younger offenders, bullying behavior can run the gamut from words and snubs — clinically referred to as “relational aggression” — to physical slaps and pushes, which may be particularly frightful to frail seniors.
The academic definition of this type of bullying behavior is that it’s repetitive, intentional, aggressive behavior based on power and control that’s intended to create harm or terror. They tend to target the people they perceive as “weaker” as easy game. And while there is not yet much data on the topic in terms of gender, female bullies tend to be more passive/aggressive in their behavior: namecalling, teasing, being insulting or sarcastic, making jokes, shunning, excluding or gossiping about their targets. Male bullies are generally more “in the face:” threatening or using physical force.
In recent research focused on assisted living, residents reported about the peer behaviors that caused them most emotional distress, and several of them qualified as bullying, including:
- Being called names
- Being bossed
- Refusing to share scarce resources, especially seating, television programming in communal areas, and staff attention
- Being hounded for money or cigarettes, and
- Experiencing physical aggression.
Not surprisingly, bullying behavior in senior facilities tends to be worst on weekends and holidays, when staffing levels are typically lowest.
Steps for Reducing Bullying
Unlike bullying that occurs in workplaces, there are no clear legal protections against it residences, unless the behavior escalates to physical abuse or violence. While the traditional track for most seniors has been to endure or remain silent about bullying behavior in their midst, experts say this serves to exacerbate it. They urge intervention — especially in long-term care facilities, where change must occur from the inside out — and facility staff and concerned family members may need to take the first steps.
- Learn what bullying is and does. The more that concerned individuals learn about the nuances of bullying behaviors among seniors, the more likely they will be able to intervene effectively to stop it. One good introductory resource is the slideset, “4 Steps to Preventing Senior Bullying,” available online.
- Assess the extent of the problem. Staff at many senior facilities work unaware that bullying is going on right under their noses. Experts recommend periodic discussions among staff, residents, and family members specifically targeting the topic.
- Create a civil atmosphere. Incivility sets the stage for bullying — and bullies thrive in atmospheres where fairness, respect, and tolerance are not valued. Along this line, the Institute on Aging’s Arbore urges stopping the use of profanity, which usually increases the tension in any discussion.
- Train staff — and residents, too. All levels of staff in a facility should be trained in how to set clear limits on bad behavior among residents and among themselves, too. Bullies rarely react well to punishing behavior, which can be seen as an attempt to “bully the bully.” At one facility, residents asked for solutions to ending bullying suggested anger management classes that could help teach them healthy ways to express themselves. Curricula for programs preventing bullying among seniors are being developed; one of them is available at differentlikeme.com.
- Put policies and procedures in place. Facilities should have official policies and complaint procedures in place against bullying — not just in handouts given to new residents or posted on a wall, but made accessible and emphasized occasionally. Some facilities have stepped up to the task by posting signs declaring “Bullying Behavior Not Tolerated Here” in various languages spoken by staff and residents there. Others insist that all residents sign a Code of Behavior banning bullying that is periodically reviewed.