Bullies in older adult communities

Bullies are terrorizing residents in long-term care and assisted living facilities, senior centers, and retirement communities around the country. The first time I witnessed older adults bullying others was at a senior center where, after a great deal of resistance from members, the age for joining the center had finally been lowered from 62 to 55 years old. Most local senior centers had already lowered their membership age years before this center. Several older members were openly rude to younger members who joined.

At lunchtime, I watched them “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 rip. I reported these incidents to the administration. They said they were “working on the problem, but change takes time.” Unfortunately, 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.

These are some hurtful actions of “mature” bullies:

  1. Block off seats for their social cliques at mealtimes and events.
  2. Criticize, ridicule, and lie about those who don’t meet their acceptance standards regarding race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, religion, economic background, and any other criteria they condone.
  3. Steal and destroy property to flaunt their power and harass victims.
  4. Physically abuse victims by pushing, hitting, punching, or kicking them. They sometimes justify this as an “accident.”

A former school principal, I know bullying is a problem that only gets worse when it’s ignored. Too often the victims are vulnerable and defenseless. Some, such as those targeted for sexual orientation, become so frustrated they commit suicide. Observers are often too afraid to intervene. The administration must be seriously involved. These guidelines can help eliminate bullying:

  1. Commit to and promote a culture with principles of equality and respect for everyone.
  2. Do a confidential needs assessment on bullying to determine severity of the problem. General needs assessments should be done periodically.
  3. Have ongoing discussions involving residents/members, staff, and community members about bullying, its causes, and solutions. Consultants with expertise in bullying, conflict resolution, and diversity can be especially helpful.
  4. Provide ongoing staff training in how to handle bullying among themselves and those they serve.
  5. Review and change procedures that can decrease the power of bullies. For example, eliminating reserved seating and implementing another seating procedure can prevent bullying cliques from saving blocks of seats, usually the best ones, for themselves.
  6. Create and disseminate a zero tolerance policy on bullying, including channels for reporting incidents and resolving them.

Victims of bullying need validation, and bullies need ongoing reminders that their resistance to embracing acceptable behavior will not be tolerated. Aside from possible legal ramifications, supporting everyone’s human rights is a moral responsibility we all share.

Frances Shani Parker is an elder care consultant and  author of Becoming Dead Right: A Hospice Volunteer in Urban Nursing Homes. She blogs at the Hospice and Nursing Homes Blog

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