Senior bullying: How to recognize it, how to handle it

Eleanor Feldman Barbera, Ph.D.
Eleanor Feldman Barbera, Ph.D.

Things were different when I was a kid. People regularly drove while intoxicated. The high school archery team practiced on the football field while the track team ran around the periphery. Children bullied their peers without anyone giving it much notice.

These days, drunk driving prohibitions abound, schools are no longer casual about teens with potential weapons, and children start learning about bullies in kindergarten.

When it comes to bullying in senior communities, though, we're still behind the times.

What is senior bullying?

According to the American Psychological Association, “Bullying is a form of aggressive behavior in which someone intentionally and repeatedly causes another person injury or discomfort. Bullying can take the form of physical contact, words or more subtle actions.

The bullied individual typically has trouble defending him or herself and does nothing to ‘cause' the bullying.” Bullying that does not involve physical contact is sometimes referred to as “relational aggression.”

According to senior bullying expert Dr. Robin Bonifas at Arizona State University, 10% to 20% of elders in senior communities experience bullying.

Dr. Margaret Wylde of the ProMatura Group reports that senior bullying occurs in every independent living community studied in her 2014 report, “Make Them Feel at Home,” sponsored by the American Seniors Housing Association.

In that study, bullying fell into the category with the largest relationship to whether or not the community feels homelike. Study participants described problems such as “difficulties making friends, being lonely, not fitting in, not having common interests, bullying by cliques, and missing their friends.”

Wylde notes that increasing residents' sense of being at home results in fewer departures from the independent living community and reduced staff turnover, leading to an estimated $52,242 in savings over the course of a year. (Far more than enough to fund a bullying prevention program!)

Increased media focus

Senior bullying is receiving increased attention in the mainstream media, with articles such as Paula Span's New Old Age column, Mean Girls in Assisted Living and Jennifer Wiener's Mean Girls in the Retirement Home. (“Mean girls” tend to engage in gossip, excluding others and establishing cliques, while male bullies are more likely to yell and threaten.)

Heightened media exposure for the issue increases the likelihood that potential residents and their adult children will be asking about bullying prevention when they're searching for a senior living community.

Steps to reduce bullying

In order to address bullying in long-term care, several steps should be taken:

• Assess the extent of the problem within your community: According to psychologist Susan Swearer, PhD, who studies childhood bullying, bullying is a “social-ecological problem that has to be understood from the perspective that individual, family, peer group, school, community, and societal factors all influence whether or not bullying occurs.” The question to ask, therefore, is “What are the conditions in your community that allow bullying to occur?” A bullying needs assessment can help determine, among other things, the type of bullying that's occurring, where bullying “hotspots” lie (the dining room, for example), and the effectiveness of your program. See the “Resources” listed below for an example of a school bullying needs assessment tool that could be adapted to a senior community.

• Create policies and procedures: Schools and workplaces have anti-bullying policies that long-term care organizations can use as models for their own guidelines. If your organization already has a policy that you're willing to share, please add it to the Comments section beneath this article. Also see the Resources section below for a sample workplace policy.

• Train staff: Employees need education so that they recognize bullying behaviors and understand the procedure to handle them within your organization.

• Establish ongoing bullying prevention programs: Preventing bullying can't be accomplished in a single staff meeting. It requires regular training and ongoing discussion with staff and residents. Some examples of programs to reduce bullying are bullying awareness sessions, civility training and interventions that directly address the person who is bullying.

Bullying in senior communities is increasingly receiving the attention it merits. I predict it won't be long before we look back with disbelief at how we handled senior bullying in 2015.

Resources

• MyBetterNursingHome, six-part series on senior bullying

• Free senior bullying webinar with Dr. El on March 25

• Audio Interview on senior bullying with Dr. Robin Bonifas

• Bully Needs Assessment, Rod Pruitt, MA

• Sample workplace bullying policy

Eleanor Feldman Barbera, PhD, author of The Savvy Resident's Guide, is a 2014 Award of Excellence winner in the Blog Content category of the APEX Awards for Publication Excellence program. She also is the Gold Medalist in the Blog-How To/Tips/Service category of the 2014 American Society of Business Publication Editors Midwest Regional competition. A speaker and consultant with nearly 20 years of experience as a psychologist in long-term care, she maintains her own award-winning website at MyBetterNursingHome.com.

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