Senior Bullying: Guest Post by Robin Bonifas, PhD, MSW, and Marsha Frankel, LICSW

Today’s blog post is the first in a biweekly series on senior bullying, bringing research into practice.

What is Bullying?

By Robin Bonifas, PhD, MSW, Assistant Professor, School of Social Work, Arizona State University, Phoenix, AZ and Marsha Frankel, LICSW, Clinical Director of Senior Services, Jewish Family & Children’s Services, Boston, MA

Bullying, defined as intentional repetitive aggressive behavior involving an imbalance of power or strength (Hazelden Foundation, 2008), has been recognized for many years as a problem among children and youth in school systems. Recently “senior bullying” has also been noted to occur among older adults in many senior housing and senior care organizations, such as adult day health programs and assisted living facilities. What does bullying look like among the older generation? Surprisingly, in many ways it looks similar to bullying among younger age groups! For example, it includes verbal, physical or antisocial behaviors that occur in the context of social relationships, and, like youths, victims of senior bullying experience considerable emotional distress. Here are some specifics:

Verbal bullying involves name calling, teasing, hurling insults, taunting, threatening, or making sarcastic remarks or pointed jokes. For example, Mary was overheard at a Senior Center luncheon saying to Grace, “You don’t know what you’re talking about. Everyone knows you’re crazy!” Physical bullying involves pushing, hitting, destroying property, or stealing. For instance, two residents in independent senior housing got into an argument over control of the remote control in the community room.  One punched the other in the face. This was not the first time these two men exchanged words, but the first time it escalated to a physical assault. Antisocial bullying includes shunning, excluding or ignoring, gossiping, spreading rumors, and using negative non-verbal body language. Such non-verbal bullying includes mimicking someone’s walk or disability, making offensive gestures or facial expressions, turning one’s head or body away when the victim speaks, using threatening body language, or encroaching on personal space. For example, John was relocated to senior housing in Massachusetts following the loss of his home in the New Orleans hurricane. Several residents began spreading rumors that he was a longtime homeless man and was the first in a deluge of formerly homeless people who were going to be “dumped” into their building. As a result, other residents began to avoid John.

Contrary to the childhood adage “sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me,” individuals who are bullied are significantly impacted by their peers’ negative behavior. Common responses include (Frankel, 2011):

  1. Reduced self-esteem
  2. Overall feelings of rejection
  3. Depression
  4. Suicidal ideation
  5. Increased physical complaints
  6. Functional changes, such as decreased ability to manage activities of daily living
  7. Changes in eating and sleeping
  8. Increased talk of moving out

The situation and type of behavior often determines whether or not problematic behavior is actually bullying. An individual who yells and strikes out at everyone is not necessarily a bully; similarly, behavior may be inappropriate and violate community rules, but not truly be bullying because the dynamics of power and control are absent. It is important to keep in mind that some people exhibit verbal or physical aggression when they are frustrated or upset as a way of communicating their feelings rather than to usurp others’ power. The potential for this situation increases in the context of dementia, due to impulse control problems, communication difficulties, frustration regarding impaired task performance, and misperceptions of potential environmental threats.

At the same time, although some problematic behaviors may not meet the academic definition of bullying, such behaviors can still feel to those on the receiving end as if they were being bullied. For example, residents in assisted living report the following peer behaviors to cause the most emotional distress (Bonifas, 2011):

  1. Loud arguments in communal areas
  2. Name calling
  3. Being bossed around
  4. Negotiating value differences, especially related to diversity of beliefs stemming from culture, spirituality, or socioeconomic status
  5. Sharing scarce resources, especially seating, television programming in communal areas, and staff attention
  6. Being hounded for money or cigarettes
  7. Listening to others complain
  8. Experiencing physical aggression
  9. Witnessing psychiatric symptoms, especially those that are frightening or disruptive

While only behaviors 2, 3, 6, and 8 really qualify as bullying, residents react or respond to such behaviors in the following comparable ways:

  1. Anger
  2. Annoyance
  3. Frustration
  4. Fear
  5. Anxiety/tension/worry
  6. Retaliation followed by shame
  7. Self isolation
  8. Exacerbation of mental health conditions

The similar reactions to both bullying and “bullying-like” behaviors implies that to understand bullying among older adults, it is necessary to develop knowledge about the individuals who exhibit bullying behaviors and individuals who are bullied. Our next blog will address this critical issue.

Robin Bonifas, PhD, MSW
Marsha Frankel, LICSW

The Senior Bullying Series:

Part One: What is Bullying?

Part Two: Who Bullies and Who Gets Bullied?

Part Three: What is the Impact of Bullying?

Part Four: Potential Organizational-Level Interventions to Reduce Bullying

Part Five: Intervention Strategies for Bullies

Part Six: Strategies for Targets of Bullying

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