Is Your Senior Being Bullied?

By Michelle Cemental

Believe it or not, bullying is a growing problem among seniors. As of November 2016, the U.S senior population was 50 million and still growing. It is projected that by 2030, seniors are projected to outnumber children for the first time in U.S. history.

As more and more seniors live in assisted-living facilities and nursing homes, there is a rising trend of peer-to-peer bullying, which is bullying by other residents or clients. According to social work professor Robin Bonifas, recent studies show that about 1 in 5 seniors are bullied. It is difficult to know how big a problem it is because many such acts go unreported. However, whether it is name calling or physical altercations, it is an aspect of senior living that should be taken seriously. Let's take a closer look at bullying in seniors.

What Is Bullying Among Seniors?

Bullying by senior peers is similar to bullying by children and teens. In senior situations where nursing home or assisted living residents must share space and resources, it may involve cliques. Small groups may claim certain spaces, seating, or equipment, excluding others.

The victims of bullying often feel ignored, intimidated or excluded. Common bullying behaviors include:

  • Social ostracism

  • Rumor mongering

  • Verbal abuse and threats of violence

  • Physical abuse

  • Invasion of personal space

  • Stealing or damaging personal property

  • Sexual abuse

Why Do Seniors Bully Their Peers?

Bullies of all ages tend to be aggressive and controlling, targeting individuals who are perceived as weak or vulnerable. They may act independently or in groups. In some cases, this is a lifelong trait, now being exhibited in a new setting and with new people.

In senior care settings, however, there are other factors at play. Senior living arrangements may make the individual feel frustrated and out of control. Some of these problems arise from adjusting to living in communal settings. Behaviors such as gossiping, intimidating others, or picking on people may give them a sense of renewed control over the situation. Other issues are simply related to aging or cognitive issues.

Those suffering from mental illness, dementia, chronic pain, and similar physical and mental problems may experience heightened aggression. Those same problems make others more vulnerable and prone to victimization. Those who have difficulty communicating may be acting out due to anger or confusion.

How Do You Know If Your Senior Is Being Bullied?

Many victims of bullying are unwilling to report it. They may withdraw and try to avoid confrontation. Others respond by fighting back. If your senior doesn't tell you about bullying but you suspect that your senior may be experiencing it, there are some signs you can look for.

Possible indications that someone is being bullied may include:

  • Changes in behavior, such as increasing complaints or a sudden desire to move out

  • Emotional changes, such as depression, suicidal tendencies, anxiety, fearfulness, or anger

  • Changes in social behavior, such as reluctance to participate in group activities or refusal to spend time in common areas

  • Changes in mental health conditions

While these signs may indicate bullying, it's important that you don't jump to any conclusions. Investigate the matter further with your loved one and their care providers. 

How Can Seniors Respond to Bullying?

Fundamentally, victims of bullies fall into 2 categories: passive and provocative. Passive victims are often highly anxious and may have difficulty reading social cues. They may be identified as insecure or shy, but they may be suffering from early dementia or other mental or emotional problems. Provocative victims may be quick-tempered, irritating, or spark bullying behaviors.

There is no sure cure for bullying; however, seniors may try to implement the following strategies and intervention techniques:

  • Using direct communication strategies

  • Using "I" statements

  • Setting boundaries

  • Avoid interrupting bullies

  • Speaking calmly and avoiding aggressive or hostile behavior yourself

  • Maintaining eye contact

  • Asking a family member to visit for a meal and activity to observe the bullying behavior

  • Speaking up when others are being bullied and report incidents to the staff

  • In some cases, ignoring the aggressive behavior keeps the bully from gaining power

What Can Nursing Homes & Assisted Living Facilities Do to Prevent Bullying?

There should be a clear zero tolerance for bullying in any setting. Nursing homes and assisted livings must rely on their staff to help take action when bullying occurs. Staff should strive to create an open and safe place for residents to discuss the problem. They should work with residents to create a  Code of Conduct, which defines what behaviors are unacceptable. 

Here are some additional suggestions to help staff members deal with bullying. 

  • Avoid disputes over common areas and resources by moving furniture, televisions and other popular equipment so that a person or group cannot claim "ownership."

  • Do not allow residents to "save" chairs" for events, thereby, excluding others.

  • Familiarize residents with an effective, confidential reporting process so that staff members are aware that there is a problem.

  • Provide anger management classes or counseling that can help seniors deal with the problems that may be contributing to aggressive behavior.

Whether it is subtle mistreatment or a physical assault, bullying is unacceptable and cannot be tolerated in any population. Recognizing, understanding, and correcting the problem can provide a safe and happy living situation for your loved one. If you believe your senior is being bullied, know that experienced caregivers can offer protection and support. If you are seeking a safe and caring environment for your loved one, home may be a better option. Contact a Caring team near you for more information. 

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Tags: Senior Health