Bullying – Not for Just Teenagers Anymore

Bullying – Not for Just Teenagers Anymore

Bullying is no longer a phenomenon for just teens, preteens and parents.  An article in Psychology Today defines bullying as a “distinctive pattern of deliberately harming and humiliating others.”  It is now a major concern for seniors and their families.  The fastest growing segment of the population is people over 84!  Many of them use senior centers or live in senior communities.  Bullying among seniors in these situations has been an issue for some time but unfortunately is on the rise.  Close to 20% of seniors who use or are in facilities face some type of bullying, harassment, social manipulation, controlling behaviors or ostracism by their peers.


Seniors spent their lives in control of their homes, families and businesses.  But moving into a facility changes all of that. Overnight they are in a totally different situation.  They are the “new kid on the block.”  If they are shy, show anxiety, have social difficulties, suffer infirmities such as Parkinson’s or Dementia or are vulnerable in other ways they are more likely to be targeted.


Bullies of any age act similarly.  They act independently or in a group.  Actions can be verbal or physical.  Bullying can come from social cliques.  Seniors usually experience verbal bullying.  Women tend to use more passive aggressive behavior such as gossiping, exclusion, making derogatory comments.  Men tend to be more outwardly aggressive making insulting comments and name calling.  In extreme cases, they physically assault their victims.  The most common forms of senior bullying are:  insults/belittling jokes; spreading rumors; whispering when the person enters the room; invading a person’s personal space; criticizing or ridiculing physical or mental disabilities; and offensive gestures/facial expressions.


What can facilities do?

Places for teens have made great strides against bullying – places for seniors can too.  Everyone wants to live in a community that makes them feel welcome, comfortable, and secure.  Clearly communicate to all:  staff, residents, family members there is a zero tolerance for bullying.


One of the biggest adjustments for people in new environments is socialization and seniors are no different.  The first few days can make seniors feel uncomfortable and lonely. A good facility will have a strong resident integration program.  It’s important for staff members to, with the help of families, learn about the interests of the new resident and then introduce them to others who share those residents.  But it is more important to have “people on the inside” direct the effort.  Many facilities have social committees which ideally have a resident integration component.  One or two individuals can lead it.  The leader(s) of this committee can make or break the comfort level and community feeling of the facility.  The leader(s) should be respected and well-liked as they are likely to be instrumental in building a feeling of a community within the various constituencies.  An additional useful practice is having a ‘buddy’ program which requires getting a cadre of able buddies.  Buddy programs take some of the burden off the leader as each buddy can ask the new person what they enjoy doing then bring them to those activities and introduce them around.  The assigned buddy will “watch over” there buddies on-going.


It can be very helpful for facilities to have not only an employee of the month (based on criteria involving service to the residents) but also ‘residents’ of the month who epitomize the values of the facility.  The resident rewards can be special honors such as a recognition lunch or dinner, event named for them, king or queen for a day, etc.


Facilities need to start with clear policies and expectations of staff that is communicated through thorough and on-going training.  Rapid intervention when problems arise is important as is clear and easy reporting processes for victims.


Much can be done to address the problem of bullying.  Facilities that are thoughtful, creative, action-oriented and have clear, effective policies that are enforced will rise to the top of the ‘reputation’ list.