Maybe you’ve seen one or more of these scenarios in your senior living community: a group of female residents purposefully ignoring another woman because she dresses differently, residents teasing another gentleman because he has troubling handling food at mealtimes, or a resident yelling at or threatening another resident for sitting at “his” seat in the lounge area.  These are all examples of elderly bullying in senior living communities that happen more frequently than you may realize.

Although not widely studied, it’s estimated that 10-20% of seniors are victims of bullying that can range from gossip and exclusion from groups to verbal attacks or acts of violence. They may be targeted for something as simple dressing differently, having trouble with tasks, or sitting in the wrong seat.

Is it Bullying or a Bad Day?

We all have bad days but for assisted living residents bad days may come more often as they struggling with aging, illness, living away from family. and a perceived loss of independence.  But, senior bullying is much more than reacting to a bad day.

True bullying behavior is defined by the “4 Ps”:

  • Pain – Bullying causes intentional pain, either physical or psychological.
  • Power – A bully holds more power and wields that power over a victim.
  • Pattern– Bullying happens more than once, it is repeated over time.
  • Permission – Bullying often takes place in front of other people who can not or do not take action to stop it.

Residents can fall into a pattern of bullying because:

  • Their own low self-esteem leads them to put others down.
  • Their feelings of significant loss cause them to seek control over something.
  • They are staking their territory in a new setting.
  • They have trouble with the differences of other individuals.
  • They have few positive social relationships.

Additionally, dementia can often play a role in bullying among the elderly. Residents who suffer from dementia are often aggressors because they perceive a threat where a threat does not truly exist. They may also exhibit declining impulse control which means they may react in haste.

Who is At Risk of Being Bullied?

When you’re identifying residents who may be at risk as a victim of elderly bullying, Robin Bonifas, Ph.D., MSW and Marsha Frankel, LICSW suggest you reach out to passive residents and provocative residents.

Passive personalities show a lot of emotion and tend to be anxious, shy, or insecure.  This makes them easy targets for residents who are looking to exert control or power over others.

On the other hand, provocative personalities can be seen by others as annoying or irritating and can intrude into the bully’s personal space.  This can push a bully to retaliate.

Race, ethnicity, or perceived sexual orientation can also increase the chances of an individual being targeted.

How are victims impacted by a bully’s negative behavior? The repercussions often include:

  • Reduced self-esteem
  • Overall feelings of rejection
  • Depression
  • Fear/anxiety/worry
  • Suicidal ideation

Warning Signs of Elderly Bullying

If you are concerned that a resident may be the victim of bullying in your senior living community, pay attention for any of these warning signs:

  • Increased complaints of physical pain
  • Worsening of mental health conditions
  • Functional changes or decreased ability to manage ADLs
  • Changes in eating and sleeping habits
  • Increased talk of leaving the community
  • Self-isolation

Creating a Bully-Free Community

If you’ve noticed a pattern of bullying in your senior care community, there are ways you can come together to prevent this harmful behavior.

One of the most successful ways to stop senior bullying is by encouraging bystanders to be “up-standers” instead. When bullies are confronted by their peers they will often stop their negative behavior. Urge residents to stand up for others when they notice bullying behavior happening:

  • Don’t encourage the bully or become an audience for the bully.
  • If possible, help the victim get away.
  • Reach out in friendship or help the victim in any way you can.
  • Tell a caregiver about the actions you have witnessed.

As a leadership team, it’s important that you create and document a zero-tolerance policy on bullying in your senior living community. Eldercare consultant and author Frances Shani Parker outlines the following strategy for senior care leadership:

  • Setting clear expectations and boundaries within the community to foster a respectful environment.
  • Ongoing discussions among staff, residents, and families, as well as formal needs assessments to identify potential problems early.
  • Evaluate and implement changes that can decrease the power that bullies hold.
  • Implementing an easy reporting process that encourages victims to report bullying.
  • Implementing a standard process for resolving bullying incidents once discovered

What’s important to remember is that just because a resident is irritable doesn’t necessarily mean they are a bully. Painful conditions and chronic illnesses cause tiredness or uncomfortableness which can lead to bad moods and poor behavior.

What solutions has your community found to help stem the growing problem of elderly bullying in senior living?