Theresa Horton, MNSc, CNP, GNP-BC, CADDCT, CFRDT
Director of Education
South Central Center on Aging
Anti-Bullying Month is observed in October. Bullying is typically associated with a younger population. However, bullying among adults occurs in multiple settings and older adults are not immune from being victims. Bullying is defined as “unwanted aggressive behavior; observed or perceived power imbalance; and repetition of behaviors or high likelihood of repetition.”
It is estimated that 20% of older adults experience some form of bullying. Healthcare professionals, staff and families should be aware of what bullying behavior looks like and its potential effects. It can be subtle or aggressive. Bullying can include behaviors such as teasing, insulting, gossiping, criticizing, ignoring, whispering, name calling, laughing at or taunting someone, sarcasm, rude comments, use of threats, arguing, lying about the victim, destruction of property, stealing, pushing, hitting, barring from entering or exiting a room, physical or verbal sexual harassment, shunning, ostracizing, spreading rumors, enforcing non-existent seating assignments, using negative body language (offensive gestures or facial expressions, mimicking physical disability, turning away when victim speaks, etc.), and cyber bullying.
Traits that cause a person to bully someone vary and can include increased stress, the need for power or control, low self-esteem, passive-aggressive behavior, verbal or physical aggressiveness and a superiority complex. Some older adults have a history of bullying that has continued throughout life. An older adult may bully because of prejudices or because of a sense of loss of control in their life. They may be dealing with loneliness or boredom or suffer from health conditions, such as dementia, that may contribute to bullying behaviors.
Identifying factors that can increase the risk of an older adult being bullied is important for intervention and prevention. Some of these include being new to a community, having little or no support network, being heavily dependent on others for daily needs, or having a passive demeanor. Others may be at risk for bullying if they annoy or irritate others or are quick-tempered. Health conditions or physical disabilities can increase the risk as well.
Bullying can have cognitive, physical, psychological or emotional consequences and can affect not only the victim, but also those who witness it. Policies should be in place to develop clear rules and expectations, including appropriate assessments and interventions. It is important that any complaints be taken seriously and that staff be educated to recognize and report bullying immediately.
Bullying Among Seniors (and Not the High School Kind). National Center for Assisted Living. 2017