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Bullying: A Problem Behavior That Spans Generations



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Amended March 4, 2015: Donna Fedus clarifies that it is loss, not bullying, that she feels is intrinsic to the aging process.

In a population of more than 320,000,000 people, US Census statistics show that 40.3 million are people 65 years of age and older. Of those, according to the National Center for Assisted Living, more than 735,000 men and women live in assisted living situations. Approximately 1.3 million more are housed in nursing homes.

Within the walls of residences, homes, and anywhere large numbers of senior citizens gather, a pecking order plays out. At its best, it allows leaders to lead. At its worst, it is bullying, no different than that seen in adolescent circles. Unless witnesses speak up or managers intervene, bullying is a behavior that can compound the sometimes already fragile mental and physical health of others.

People live longer, and the number of senior citizens living in congregate housing has increased greatly since the 1980s, said Donna Fedus, MA, gerontologist, founder of eldercare resource Borrow My Glasses, and director of elder programs at The Consultation Center, Yale University School of Medicine. That may be why the incidence of resident-to-resident bullying may appear to be on the uptick in senior housing or places where seniors gather.

“It’s not a new phenomenon,” said Ms Fedus, as bullying knows no age boundaries.

Bullying takes many forms, whether a person is 8 or 80. The AARP lists behaviors such as name calling, being bossy, being argumentative, and physical aggressiveness as bullying. The National Center of Elder Abuse includes invasion of privacy, verbal threats or harassment of another, destruction of or use of personal property without permission, unwanted sexual behavior, and ostracism as additional forms of bullying seen in elder situations. Even negative body language can be seen as a form of bullying.

Men are more likely than women to use face-to-face verbal assaults, or to bully physically. Women tend to use a passive/aggressive approach, talking behind others’ backs or excluding from groups. Because the percentage of aged women outnumbers that of men, women are more apt to be on both the giving and receiving end of mean-spirited attitudes.

Ms Fedus sees exclusion as the most common form of bullying among the elderly. It may be overt: “You can’t sit here.” Or it may be the communication of subtle messages that tells someone “They are not wanted. That they’re not in charge, or that the other person is in charge,” she said

Control or the lack of it may be the source of bad behavior, she said. “I think [loss] is intrinsic to the aging process. [Older] people experiences so much loss,” Ms Fedus said, in many areas. Losing the decisionmaking process, physically weaknesses, and the loss of loved ones and friends can give the elderly a sense of powerlessness.

“If people can’t control those things in life, it may be why they want some sort of control. The perception of power over another human being can alleviate the feelings of having no control,” she said.

People with dementia, particularly advanced dementia, are targets for bullying.

“Dementia scares people, and they want to distance themselves from it,” Ms Fedus said. By excluding a person with dementia from activities or groups, that fear can be kept at arm’s length.

Because bullying can be debilitating for the victim and detrimental to the social environment, intervention is important, Ms Fedus said. Intervention needs to be as multilayered a response to the issue of resident-to-resident bullying as that complex issue is in itself.

A multipronged approach, she said, must first take the victim seriously, offering support from the staff. Then something must be done about the bully.

“Call them out on it,” she suggested — but do so with sensitivity and compassion. It is likely that the bully is suffering in some way, as well.

Any organization or living situation must develop a culture of not tolerating bullying.

“[Residents or participants] must know that in this place we treat everyone with kindness, and here’s what’s going to happen. It helps when people know the rules and it helps the witnesses,” Ms Fedus said. A clear policy on bullying and how to talk about it raises the comfort level for witnesses to report situations of bullying, and for staff to confront bullies.

Equally important is to find ways to engage senior citizens productively and enrich their lives.

“It is most important,” she stressed, “that we surface this issue. Then we can deal with it and intervene.”

There has been great progress made in the issue of youth bullying and how to better deal with it, she pointed out, “and that can be a model for seniors.”

Cliques And Exclusion

Area professionals who work closely with the elderly population, but who prefer to remain anonymous, agreed with Ms Fedus. (The professionals will all be referred to in this article as “she.”)

“In 25 years of my experience, the behaviors we’re seeing are not new,” said one. “Bullying is a hot topic in the news right now, but we see it across a lot of genres. I think people are becoming aware that it is not just a problem with kids,” she said.

More assisted living options than two decades ago means more older people living in communal settings. Some name calling and teasing does occur, she said, but it is more common to see cliques form, with exclusionary behaviors.

Very strong personalities or those who are physically strong may exclude someone with cognitive issues. “It is hard for some seniors to see what is down the road for them,” she said,

Bullying can definitely be a control issue, she agreed with Ms Fedus, especially if a person was once in a powerful position in younger days. It cannot be overlooked, it was noted, that some elder bullies were probably bullies in their youth. It is a myth that personalities sweeten with age.

Empowering people is essential to preventing bullying, this professional said.

“We focus on what people can still do, what they can maintain. We encourage residents to stay involved in activities they were involved in before moving to assisted living, and to keeping people connected. We set boundaries, in a respectful way, and try to identify needs so that they don’t feel a need to bully,” she said.

When the focus is not on what is lost to residents, there is less apt to be a need for any resident to tease another.

“When they feel good enough about themselves, it reduces the need for negative reinforcement,” this professional has observed.

Encouraging all residents to have a voice and to know that what they say matters also helps, she said. Bringing in outside programming to address this issue will aid in preventing occurrences of bullying.

Studies suggesting 10 to 20 percent of a population may be the victims of resident-to-resident bullying are high numbers, in this particular living situation, said the staff.

“I would say the majority of people are so kind and caring here. For every ‘bully,’ there are 50 good people and staff, ready to help,” she said.

There are many good seniors, agreed two other directors of senior programs, but bullying is a problem in Newtown. In these local situations, they are in agreement that 10 to 20 percent of the population they oversee may be subjected to, or witness, bullying. Anxiety, fear, and feelings of powerlessness add up to verbal taunts and exclusionary behavior, regularly, they said. Whispering behind the hand, gossiping about others, and snubbing of peers are the most frustrating of behaviors. Senior social groups that “control” a function can make others feel left out.

Fear Of The Future

“The proximity of people in an assisted living situation or senior housing can create anxiety for some seniors,” said one director. “Seeing other people in walkers and wheelchairs when they get together increases worries that have always existed.”

One senior program director said that incidences of bullying are on the increase in recent years. The “Me” generation is getting older, she said, contributing to a climate where less care is taken of others’ feelings.

“I don’t think they even really know they are being bullies. There have always been cliques, but at a certain age, other people can be vulnerable [to the negative behavior]. The bullies,” she said, “may have always been so; or they are not embracing the aging process.”

Early onset dementia can also lead seniors to react negatively or without inhibition. Those with advanced dementia and the disabled tend to be victimized by bullies most frequently, both have noticed. It is the fear of the future and what it could hold that leads one person to repeatedly pick on someone weaker.

Determining when it is time to intervene is not always clear-cut when dealing with other adults, said another director.

However, situations such as one in which a newcomer was refused seating at a table “are blatant bullying situations,” she said. “That person left, very upset,” and the incident was noted. With the awareness that bad behaviors were no longer uncommon, this professional began researching ways to change the community climate.

Support Is Vital

Supporting the victim of bullying and validate his or her feelings, said these professionals, is vital, as well as encouraging the victim to confront the bully when the situation arises. It is not an easy task.

“Some people won’t come and talk to you, as there is this fear of repercussion from the others. [Directors] need to let them know we are aware of the bullying,” one program director said, but adults must also be allowed to find their own comfort zones.

Raising awareness is an important piece of preventing bullying, both said. Kindness programs will be brought into communal places, as well as sensitivity training, they said. Speakers focused on the positive aspects of aging, or how to deal with the normal aging process and health issues give seniors confidence. Confident senior citizens rarely have a need to turn on another.

“Even if [the bullies] don’t identify [bullying] in themselves,” she said, “they are at least being made aware.”

Implementing a code of conduct where seniors gather spells out rules simply, and is another means of approaching the subject of bullying.

 “It just to remember the Golden Rule — treat others the way you want to be treated,” said one.

When seniors are involved in the outside community, the positive feelings carry over into other daily activities. Intergenerational programs, contributing to holiday gift baskets for the needy, and other activities that cause a person to see beyond themselves are other means of preventing the fearful feelings that contribute to bullying, they said.

Education, awareness, and talking about positive behavior can turn a negative culture around, they believe. It is up to them, as leaders, to do what they can to see that their community is not one in which negative behavior is tolerated.

“Speak up,” urged one director, “when you feel that bullying is occurring.”

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