Elder bullies: Bad behavior at the senior center

May 23, 2018

It turns out that bullying is a lifelong skill—learned in daycare, honed in the schoolyard, practiced in the workplace, and played out among peers in senior living communities nationwide.

Indeed, AARP has estimated that between 10% and 20% of older adults who reside in nursing homes, retirement communities and senior living facilities are victims of harassment and persecution—not from the staff (although that is also a concern), but from other older adults who live on the premises.

And that’s not all: While the communal-living nature of senior living communities can open the door for the formation of cliques and similar social behaviors, even seniors living in their own homes independently can be subject to bullying within their social circles, according to the website Senior Homes.

In a 2011 post on KevinMD, a writer describes a nursing home setting where “younger patients” (age 55+) had just begun to be admitted under new rules—creating a situation in which the “newbies” were exposed to bullying by their elders.

“At lunchtime,” the observer wrote,”I watched [the longer-term residents] ‘reserving” tables’ for their older friends and leaving leftover seating for younger members.

“I overheard negative comments about ‘those new young people,’ stated loudly enough for everyone to hear. I even witnessed an attempt to get a younger member in trouble when a bully lied to administrators that the younger member was too young to participate on a field trip.”

When the observer reported these actions to the administrators, they said they were “working on the problem, but change takes time.”

Unfortunately, the writer commented, “many older adults don’t have a lot of time. No one should have to spend their senior years being victimized daily by mean-spirited bullies.”

And such behavior is common among long-term care residents, who have no control over most aspects of their own lives—except for their friendships and behaviors. In addition to saving seats, these mature, practiced bullies are apt to:

  • Ridicule peers who do not meet their acceptance standards for race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, religion, or economic background;
  • Spread rumors or whisper when the victim enters a room;
  • Invade a victim’s personal space;
  • Tease a peer about physical or mental disabilities;
  • Make offensive gestures and facial expressions;
  • Steal and destroy property to flaunt their power and harass victims; and
  • Physically abuse victims by pushing, hitting, punching, or kicking them.

Dr. Linda Rhodes, author of The Essential Guide for Caring for Aging Parents, told Penn Live in 2014, “Elder bullies might have likely exhibited this behavior during a lifetime, but as they age, factors such as loss of independence, relationships, valued roles, and feeling powerless in a controlled setting can exacerbate the need to exert control and ignite a late-life round of bullying behavior.”

In social situations, particularly communal living situations, in which staff are responsible for the health and well-being of all residents, the goal is to create a nurturing, home-like environment in which residents feel welcome and comfortable. Naturally, that’s difficult to achieve if a resident is being outcast and ridiculed by others. And when we, as older adults, enter communal living or social situations, we do bear some responsibility for getting along with others.

Many communities have residents sign a code of conduct agreement, committing them to appropriate treatment of others and outlining the steps taken, should bullying or other inappropriate behavior be identified.

Typically, staff conduct an assessment to determine if there’s an underlying cause for the bullying behavior, such as dementia or side effects from medications, before taking preventive and disciplinary steps.

Research contact: contact@kevinmd.com

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