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.
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.
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.
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.