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Sunday, August 4, 2013

Bullies with False Teeth, Hearing Aids and Walkers are on the Rise

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Almost weekly someone shares a story with me that involves seniors bullying  other seniors.  They are more often than not at a loss to know what  to do about it.  After all, we are not talking about children whom we can assign detention, suspend or remove from the classroom when they bully.  We are talking about mature, accomplished, elders whom we admire and respect. In response to what is seeming more and more like an epidemic, a few years ago I developed a series of senior bullying workshops that have been presented in a number of independent and assisted living communities, as well as senior centers in and around central Ohio.

Many seniors initially attend the bullying workshops out of curiosity and under the impression that they are unaware of any bullying within their communities.  The unfortunate truth is that bullying is human behavior that we do not outgrow just by advancing in years.  As soon as they understand that bullying includes a whole continuum of conduct that goes beyond physical abuse they are quick to identify bullying behavior and yes - the bullies themselves.   In fact, I generally need to issue a warning about the importance of not naming names as we move through our discussion. 

We include a section in our most popular brochure called - You Might Be a Bully If:

·         You refuse to allow other residents to sit at your table at mealtime.
·         You encourage others not to be friendly with residents you dislike.
·         You participate in hurtful gossip about other residents.
·         You raise your voice resulting in the intimidation of another.
·         You refuse to participate and/or discourage others from participating because you dislike a participating resident. 
·         You label others with hurtful nicknames or engage in name calling.
·         You continue to "tease" another resident even though that individual has asked you to stop.
·         You are the member of a clique which is by definition exclusionary. 

What does bullying typically look like in senior arenas?  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 engages in 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 a large number of disputes over shared resources like seating in the dining room or the attention of staff members. 

 Consider  the following examples centered around one shared resource - the laundry area. 

Ø  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.

Ø  A female resident who was a notorious busybody started a hurtful rumor about a new male resident that included the notion that he was a cross-dresser after mistakenly identifying another female resident's laundry for the gentleman's laundry.  This situation caused the gentleman not to want to leave his apartment and culminated in a first time bought with depression. 

Ø  An unidentified resident once hung an extra large pair of bloomers on the pegboard in a laundry room with a note that named a resident (property of so and so) adding that "someone needs to diet."  The resident who was named had been the target of a whole barrage of bullying behavior including hate mail and shunning.  This situation eventually erupted into a physical altercation and the arrest of the woman who had been being targeted because she threw the first punch. 

What can be done to stop senior bullying?  We teach folks to recognize bullying behavior.  We also provide information about the reasons people bully and the potential consequences of bullying.  We teach intervention strategies.  We focus on learning to present as assertive without becoming aggressive.  For the target, learn effective strategies like ignoring or avoiding the bully. Learn to speak from a place of confidence.   For the witness, understand that bullying doesn't continue without a group of by-standers who act like it's okay.  Express your disapproval.  For the bully, learn to listen and see yourself as others see you.  Ask for help or seek counseling if necessary.