Seniors & Bullying
Can seniors be bullied? Yes! And they can be bullies. What is senior bullying? Why would adults bully anyone? What can we do to prevent it? How can we intervene to put a stop to it? People who live in assisted livings, skilled nursing facilities, and independent living communities have for the most part primarily lived their lives independently in their own homes. They may have had plenty of space and privacy and now they are living in an area where they don’t have as much space as they are used to. They have downsized to just enough for one bedroom and some don’t even have kitchens or separate bedroom and living spaces. Even that’s not entirely private because then there are staff members that are in and out to assist and give care. A lot of times these seniors have lost a lot of their personal space, their individuality, and their privacy which makes it such a big adjustment for them living in these kinds of environments.
Bullying is a form of aggressive behavior in which someone intentionally and repeatedly causes another person injury or discomfort. Bulling can take the form of physical contact, words or more subtle actions. The key words are intentional and repeated. This is not one person being overly sensitive. It is not a one-time thing. Although, even just one incident can have really long-lasting effects on a person if the incident is severe enough. However, in most cases, it is something that is happening over and over and the person demonstrating the behavior is doing it on purpose. “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” It is a nursery rhyme we’ve all heard, but it is not necessarily true. Words can be very hurtful, especially coming from someone you consider a friend or someone of authority. Words hurt.
Is there a time in your life you may have been bullied? As a child in school? In the workplace? In college? Has your child been bullied? How did your child feel? Were they crying, afraid, frustrated? How did you feel as the parent? Sad, angry? We can all agree it’s a terrible feeling whether you are the person experiencing bullying or your loved one is experiencing it. It hurts at any age. What did you do about it if you were bullied? Did you tell someone? Did you ask for help? How did that go? Did you receive help or encouragement? Did someone of authority step in and intervene and put a stop to it? Did they not help you? Were you on your own? Did you feel ignored? Or think about the uncomfortable truth. Were you the bully? Were you mean spirited or involved in a group of ganging up on other kids?
Not all bullies are the same. They don’t all use the same tactics and some may not even consider their behavior bullying. The types of bullies can include selfish people who don’t have any empathy for others and want what they want when they want it and do not care how it affects others. We’ve all known people like that before. Then you have the emotional bully. This person may be a little spontaneous. They didn’t plan it, but they got upset and lashed out. For whatever reason they didn’t get their way or something struck them and they lashed out. Then there is the bandwagon bully. This one doesn’t really bully on their own, but gets dragged into bullying by other people. They may feel if they don’t go along with it then they might be the next target.
What are the characteristics of being a victim of bullying? Being a victim doesn’t mean you are weak or incapable of doing something about your situation. The victim is simply the person it is happening to. A lot of times in senior communities the victim is the new person. They just moved in and they don’t know the cliques and friendships already formed. They don’t know the lay of the land and they still have so many questions. They don’t know who sits where at what table. A lot of times this is a person who has little or no family support. If a resident has a lot of family coming to check on them or they’re frequently going out shopping with their daughter, they have a person who can see and notice things going on and they are their loved one’s advocate. When someone is alone and doesn’t necessarily have someone noticing things it makes them a perfect target for being bullied. A lot of times a victim of bullying will have a quiet shy demeanor. You don’t see as many bubbly outgoing people being bullied. It’s not as common. It’s more likely to be someone who is very reserved and more afraid to speak up for themselves. It may be someone who is a little unusual or kind of quirky. Maybe someone who dresses a little differently or says or does things a little offbeat. There is nothing wrong with that, but gives a bully something to latch on to and make fun of. Sometimes the victims are minorities in the communities. It gives the community the ‘you’re not one of us’ mentality. It may not necessarily be race, it may be church groups, groups that play particular games like bridge, or even a group that smokes and maybe the minority doesn’t.
There are different types of bulling like there are different types of bullies. There are different ways that they carry it out. Isolation is a big one. The target person feels they are not a part of the group and not included. They may feel no one is talking to them. They feel invisible. Sometimes the isolation is subtle. They may not have been told they can’t join the group, but it is an obvious feeling when they are around. They aren’t included in conversation. Their input isn’t asked. Whispering and rude comments are said, but the message can actually be heard. Bringing up embarrassing topics such as if the victim has incontinence issues or is hard of hearing. The message is conveyed nonetheless. Another type is physical. It’s crazy that this would be a thing at all with seniors but it does happen. They may pinch or trip when no one is looking. Seniors are just people like everyone else. There are nice ones and then there are means ones. There can be mean hearted people young and old. Some handle their feelings and frustrations by lashing out physically. Physical includes stealing. They may steal from others not because they need the item, but because they don’t want the other person to have the item. Jealousy can cause bullying. Most of the seniors in these communities are women. 57% of adults 65+ are women. 2/3 of Americans 85+ are women. There are not that many eligible bachelors to be had. There are not as many males in senior communities. There are very few men available for the ladies to compete for and the ladies do get very competitive. They may not be trying to date or form a relationship, but they are competing for attention. If a new woman moves in and catches the eye of the eligible bachelor at the apartment complex, you can bet there are going to be some other ladies upset about it. False allegations are another type of bullying. This can be against staff or neighbors. Noise complaints are common. Pets are a popular false allegation. The pet is using the restroom in the wrong place or tearing things up and making noise. It gives the bully something see a lot of social media use in the communities right now, but it is coming. The younger generations are the social medica gurus and will be the ones really mainstreaming social media bullying. They’ll be bringing in their tablets, iPads, and laptops and will be on social media all the time. As we all know, hiding behind a computer screen makes people a little more fearless. They become what is known as keyboard warriors. People feel safer saying things behind a computer rather than saying things to someone’s face. It is by far the easiest route to be a bully. Pictures can be shared; memes can be made. It also provides a much wider audience.
Why is this happening? Well, why do any bullies do what they do? Sometimes there just are mean people in the world. You hear about senior communities being like junior high school all over again. Bullying is definitely underreported. Many don’t even speak out about it and just take it. Regardless, it is a real issue and we need to make ourselves more aware of it. Be aware of what is going on with your loved ones. Be aware if you work in these communities. Be their advocate. Stand up for them. Speak out for them. Our seniors are losing their independence, their autonomy, their control when having to move into these communities. We need to make ourselves aware of all of the changes they are going through and we need to be considerate of those sacrifices. It has to be a balance of giving them some independence and choices while still running a facility properly with a large group of people. In hopes of giving them some independence back, they won’t be as likely to take things out on others. Another thing that may contribute to bullying is the loss of inhibition. We see movies that laugh at how seniors will say anything at any given moment. They have no filter. Not everyone is like that, but it is a stereotype. In looking at the progressive of our brains as we age, the frontal lobe is the first to atrophy. It is the part that controls personality, emotion, inhibition. It is the part of the brain that reminds you not to say or do things. This does not even include those who may have dementia. With that, it begs the question if this is the person’s true personality or simply what has happened because of their brain atrophy as they’ve aged? Family often reports that their mom or dad has changed and their personality isn’t like it used to be years ago. It may be a truly physical reason why people behave differently and of course it is not to be used as a coverup for every senior, but could be a possibility in some cases. Boredom could be another reason for bullying. They may have worked their whole lives or were busy in their home, busy volunteering, active in their churches and now they are older and their bodies aren’t able to do as much. They have a lot of free time on their hands just sitting around and the days get long and little things seem big to them. A comment can be stretched far and wide. This is where activities are a great thing in these communities. It helps grow social relationships, keeps them busy, helps strengthen the fine motor skills. The hard part is you can’t always get them to participate. Help find what each person loves to do and what gives them a sense of purpose. If people feel fulfilled, they will likely be happier people.
Prejudice and racism still happen in senior communities as they do in the rest of the world. Not only does it happen within the seniors themselves, but also within the care workers. Seniors may prefer a specific race and/or gender to provide care for them. We have so much hope that this will change for future generations. Another thing seniors may have issue with is homophobia. Many of them lived in a day and age where it was not as talked about and people were not as open to share. Seniors still have very traditional and old school opinions and may hurt feelings when it is brought up or they are confronted with a care worker who is lgbtq. Even the seniors themselves who may have been lgbtq were often hospitalized as though it were an illness and the stigma continues today. Disagreement and dislike can also form from opposing religious or political views. They feel they may be bullied for being who they are or bullied because they know the care worker knows they disagree with their views, beliefs, morals, and values. Times are changing and there will continue to be things we will have to work through together as a community and as a nation.
Healthcare workers sometimes tend to have the mentality that seniors in senior communities are customers and that they are there to serve them, but they must also remember that these are people. People with feelings, voices, opinions, values, beliefs. However, we must not let them get away with things because they are older. They cannot simply hurt others for no reason. As we would a friend, we can call them out when they are being unkind. Some people may say “well he is just that way” or “that is just how she is.” That really is not an excuse for bad behavior. As staff, if you don’t feel it is your place to step in, you can pass the information on to the administrator or social worker. We must stand up for one another. We must defend others and put a stop to bullying. Sometimes straight up confronting the issue between the two individuals works. Sometimes group discussions work. There must be a strong mediator involved. Talk about the issue and work it out. Maybe not even necessarily confronting the bully, but bringing up the topic in a group session. The victim may just need some additional support from staff or from their pastor or clergy. Having support makes people feel valued. The ombudsman is another great support person that is a neutral party and can help work out confrontation and bullying. Have a strict ‘no bullying’ policy at your facilities. When someone moves in, make sure they know up front the rules and regulations and stand by them. Have an anonymous grievance policy. Have a lock box on the wall where people can write down their concerns and submit for management to review. It gives people an outlet to speak up without being called out individually. Take the grievances seriously and do something about them. Train staff on bullying and intervention. Train them to notice when bullying is happening. It takes the community as a whole knowing what is expected and what will happen if rules are broken. Model the behavior you want to see and create a culture of inclusion and learning and accepting of new cultures, diets, ways of life. Create a fun environment with love and acceptance. If there is a place full of happy people that celebrate each other, the bullies will lose their audience and give up! The bottom line is intervention is necessary. Never ignore it. Never assume it will go away. Do something until the problem is solved.
sources: Right at Home University Webcast