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Preventing Senior Bullying

Take action now to protect your organization and those in your care

As the U.S. population ages, more and more elders receive care in senior centers, assisted-living facilities, and nursing homes. Unfortunately, a related trend is the rising incidence of peer-to-peer bullying among these seniors. Recent studies have shown as many as one in five seniors in community settings are abused by other residents or clients.

The best way to protect your organization, staff, and residents or clients is to implement an effective anti-bullying policy to help prevent bullying.

Group of seniors talking

STEP ONE: Educate staff and residents about senior bullying

What does peer-to-peer bullying look like?

In many ways, peer abuse among seniors is quite similar to the bullying experienced by children and teens:

  • Bullies are typically aggressive and want to control others.
  • Bullies may act independently or in concert with others.
  • Weaker, vulnerable individuals are singled out and targeted.
  • Most bullying takes the form of verbal or physical abuse, taunting and social ridicule, and attempts to ostracize the victims.

Other aspects, however, complicate the issue in senior care settings:

  • Dementia, mental illness, chronic illness/pain, insomnia, or unhappiness with changing circumstances can heighten aggression in some individuals.
  • The same concerns and issues may make weaker individuals more vulnerable and prone to victimization.
  • Not all aggressive behavior is bullying. This is especially true for seniors who are cognitively or mentally impaired, or who have difficulty understanding or communicating with others.

What are the most common bullying behaviors?

Any aggression or negative interaction between seniors should be immediately addressed. This includes any incident involving:

  • Verbal abuse - yelling, insults, criticism, ridicule, name-calling
  • Physical abuse - striking, hitting, tripping, kicking, threats of violence
  • Social ostracism - shunning, ignoring, rumors, social cliques, refusal to allow access to common areas or participation in group activities
  • Sexual harassment - unwanted advances, forced participation in or witnessing of sexual acts
  • Invasion of personal space or privacy

How do victims (and others) typically react to bullying?

Some victims may respond by fighting back, but many withdraw out of fear and a desire to avoid confrontations. Any of the following may indicate abuse:

  • Emotional changes - sadness or depression, suicide ideation, nervousness, fearfulness, anxiety, anger or frustration
  • Behavioral changes - acting out, loss of function, increased complaints, stated desire to leave or move out
  • Retreat and avoidance - hesitancy to join in group activities, refusal to enter common areas when others are present
  • Worsening of existing mental health conditions

It's not just victims who suffer:

  • Seniors who witness bullying may be afraid they will be bullied if they interfere - and then feel guilty about not speaking up.
  • Witnesses may be drawn in as "secondary abusers."
  • Staff may become targets for verbal or physical abuse.
  • Staff may become abusers themselves.
  • Employee satisfaction is reduced, and turnover increases.

Group of seniors laughing

STEP TWO: Establish clear guidelines and expectations regarding behavior

Creating a safe environment begins with rules and accountability:

  • Hold open discussions with residents/clients to talk about the problem.
  • Have staff and residents work together to develop a Code of Conduct that defines acceptable and unacceptable behaviors.
  • Have all residents pledge to follow the Code of Conduct.

Build on this foundation with assistance and support:

  • Create a confidential reporting process so seniors can inform staff when they experience or witness bullying.
  • Offer counseling, anger management classes, or other programs to help seniors deal with frustrations that may lead to aggressive behavior.

Consider procedural changes to reduce arguments over common areas and resources:

  • Do not permit seniors to "save" chairs for others, especially for group events or activities.
  • Have seniors who want to sit together gather outside of the communal area and enter as a group.
  • Periodically move furniture, TVs, etc. around to disrupt any sense of "ownership" by individuals or groups.

Staff member and older lady in wheelchair

STEP THREE: Teach staff and seniors how to respond to possible bullying

Staff should be prepared to step in and de-escalate the situation immediately:

  • Approach calmly, from the front, with eye contact.
  • Speak respectfully and listen carefully.
  • Point out that bullying is inappropriate and unacceptable.
  • Redirect the conversation or introduce a new activity.
  • Ensure that uninvolved individuals are kept out of harm's way.

Residents/clients should also be taught how to respond to bullying:

  • Ignore provocative behavior to help diminish or end the bullying.
  • Avoid interrupting or provoking bullies, but maintain eye contact.
  • Share opinions calmly without aggression or hostility.
  • Give people the benefit of the doubt if their behavior may be health-related and not deliberate bullying.
  • Speak up when others are bullied: Bystander intervention is shown to stop bullies 50% of the time.
  • Report incidents to the staff.

Key Takeaways

Serving the needs of our aging population includes protecting them from abuse by their peers. Implementation of an anti-bullying policy is the most effective way to do so - and will contribute to the creation of an environment that fosters safety, security, and dignity for all.

If you have specific questions or need help with bullying prevention, call our Risk Control Central department at (800) 554-2642, ext. 5213, or email

Learn more about how Church Mutual Insurance Company can help you protect the greater good.

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Church Mutual Insurance Company, S.I. (a stock insurer)
P.O. Box 357 | 3000 Schuster Lane | Merrill, WI 54452-0357
Telephone (800) 554-2642 or (715) 536-5577

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Church Mutual is a stock insurer whose policyholders are members of the parent mutual holding company formed on 1/1/20. S.I. = a stock insurer.