by Lisa Stockdale
The word bully conjures up images of the black eye at the bus stop but we are seeing more and more bullies with gray hair, hearing aids and walkers. I work as a healthcare professional in Ohio and visit numerous retirement, independent and assisted living communities, as well as long term care settings and senior centers every week. My job includes a mandate to develop senior programming and a few years ago a service coordinator called to asked me what I knew about senior bullying. She explained that the situation in her community was getting more and more out of control. Despite the fact that she works for one of the largest senior housing authorities in the country specializing in "aging in place" and senior services, no one within her organization could offer any assistance or direction. The problem is twofold: 1) Senior are bullying other seniors and 2) Senior housing communities are ill-equipped to deal with the conundrum.
First, let's talk about the fact that seniors are bullying other seniors. In my experience, the most pervasive form of senior bullying is a combination of verbal and social bullying. There are times when a senior resident resorts to physical bullying like pushing, tripping, pinching or even kicking. But the more common practice involves yelling, spreading rumors, name calling, manipulating relationships and participating in cliques. There are also a large number of disputes over shared resources like seating in the dining room or shared televisions & computers. A resident once told me that another resident initially became verbally abusive with him because he entered the common laundry room in front of her causing her to have to wait to do her laundry. In the weeks and months that followed, the female resident began spreading rumors about the male resident and would routinely chase him down in her power-chair to call him names and shout obscenities at him. He eventually moved out of the community in an effort to avoid the bully.
Bullying is common in other adult arenas including the workplace and the military but for some reason we just don't want to acknowledge it in the senior arena. In fact, many communities are reluctant to admit they have a bullying problem. Recently, I meet with a manger of an independent living community to discuss the presentation of a senior bullying program to her community. She initially saw a need for the program and sited several examples of senior bullying. We scheduled the workshop that same day. A few weeks before the first workshop, she asked if we could call it something besides bullying. She said she was concerned that residents wouldn't attend if they thought it was about bullying. I offered assurances that I had presented the workshop dozens of times and attendance was never an issue but her concerns prevailed. I eventually conceded to call it "Community Enrichment" but insisted on having the word bullying in the description because I did not want to engage in trickery. She agreed. A few days later she asked if we could change the time because of a scheduling conflict. I suspect she was hoping my schedule wouldn't allow for the adjustment and that the workshop would be cancelled. We changed the time of the workshop. A few days later she emailed to say that after careful consideration she had decided that there was no need for the program in her community. "If it ain't broke, don't fix it," she wrote. She hasn't spoken to me since despite multiple attempts to reach out. I suspect some professionals are hesitate to acknowledge the problem because they are afraid their superiors will blame them for not effectively managing headaches internally but that is just another excuse for complacency and denial.
On the other hand, most administrators, managers, and service coordinators are brave enough to allow the senior bullying discussion and education for their residents. But they are ill- equipped to know how to deal with the problem when it actually occurs. Last fall I was asked to attend a resident meeting at a local assisted living community to discuss senior bullying. As the staff made their way into the meeting, a dispute erupted over candy and one of the residents began making accusations and starting yelling at another resident. When the other resident didn't move to another seat as the bully resident had instructed her to do, the bully resident began nudging the other resident with her cane. The staff looked on in disbelief but did nothing to intervene or address the situation. The problem is that there are no policies or procedures in place to allow for corrective action when it is necessary. There are also no training programs to teach effective intervention strategies. After all, we are not talking about children whom we can assign detention, suspend, or remove from the classroom when they engage in bullying. We are talking about mature, accomplished, elders whom we admire and respect.
Bullying is not childish behavior. It is human behavior. Anytime we spend a lot of time together and share resources, a bully will emerge. More shared time and resources equals more bullying. As older adults continue to mature, the demand to develop policies and procedures, as well as innovative and inclusive programming to address senior bullying will also mature. We need to get in front of the problem now and stop pretending that it doesn't exist. Seniors living in senior housing communities deserve attention now. Don't be afraid to confront the problem.