The word bullying usually conjures images of mean-spirited adolescents cornering another child in the school corridor, but bullying is not limited to children. It can be a concern for seniors as well, especially those living in senior communities.
According to a researcher who studies issues related to aging, senior-to-senior bullying tends to take place in senior centers, nursing homes or assisted living facilities. These are places where seniors spend a lot of time together and need to share resources, whether it’s chairs, tables, TV stations or the staff’s attention.
It is estimated that 10-20% of seniors have experienced some type of senior-to-senior aggression in an institutional setting, much of it verbal abuse. Men and women are equally likely to be the victim and the aggressor. Women tend towards passive-aggressive behavior like gossiping and whispering about people when they enter a room, while men are more direct and “in your face”.
Bullying behavior can range from verbal intimidation all the way to physical violence. Features to be alert to include the following:
-Repetitive, negative behavior towards another person which violates standards of appropriate conduct
-Negative behavior occurring over a period of time, typically becoming more extreme
-Behavior which may be consciously or unconsciously committed by the bully
-Behavior which is unsolicited by the victim
-The effects on the victim are lasting and harmful
The causes of bullying vary. Dementia can sometimes be the cause of violence since someone with dementia may wrongly perceive things as threatening so they resort to a more primitive response. Alternatively, a person with dementia can be the victim who is picked on. Bullying can also be a result of the human phenomenon of the strong picking on the weak, and not a function of aging at all. Alternatively, some people don’t adjust well to aging and can become disruptive and abusive, pushing others away from group activities, social gatherings or meal time.
Bullying impacts both the victim and the bystanders. The impact for the victim can be cognitive, physical, psychological and physical. Take the case of Mary, who had never experienced bullying until she moved in to a building for seniors. Since moving in, a number of residents who make up a “controlling group” have conspired to isolate her. They’ve spread false rumors, including one that she’d been evicted from her previous home. As a result, she curtails her activity in the building, avoids the laundry room if others are present and stays out of the recreation room. She’s been having a hard time sleeping and is often fatigued. She says, “It’s hard because I’ve never had to deal with it before. It would be easier to take if there was any truth to it.” For bystanders, bullying creates a toxic environment of fear and mistrust.
“Intervention is the key to halting bullying. Third party bystanders should report any abuse,” says Jean Tucker, MA, LPC, LBSW, a Medical Social Worker with THE MEDICAL TEAM. She suggests that seniors and family members who are concerned about potential bullying should report their concerns to the management or the social workers at their center who are trained to address it. Those in the process of selecting a senior community should ask if the community has a policy in place to handle bullying. Bullying behavior should not be ignored as the behavior can often escalate.
Keashly, L. (2011). Bullying in senior communities: Old enough to know better? PDF document.
Mapes, D. (2011). Mean-old girls: Seniors who bully. Retrieved from www.msnbc.msn.com
Simovska, A. (2012). Senior citizens bullying more prevalent than you think. Retrieved from www.uppermichigansource.com
Zuteck, C. and McGhie, M. (2012). Bullying Among Seniors. THE MEDICAL TEAM powerpoint presentation.