Senior Bullying, Part 2: Who bullies and who gets bullied?

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

Who bullies and who gets bullied?

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

Individuals Who Bully

Readers will recall from our initial blog that bullying is defined as intentional repetitive aggressive behavior involving an imbalance of power or strength (Hazelden Foundation, 2008). Given this definition, the characteristics of most individuals who bully reflect underlying needs for power and control; the majority of bullies’ behaviors and social interaction patterns strive to achieve these aims. Although most people like to be in charge of their situation, they accomplish this in ways that do not negatively impact others. In contrast, bullies are more likely to use power and control strategies at the expense of others. Indeed, they often find it positively reinforcing to make others feel threatened, fearful or hurt, or to contribute to conflict between people. These tendencies are further complicated by difficulty tolerating individual differences, lack of empathy, and very few positive social relationships.

In our experience there are gender differences in bullying behaviors whereby women tend to engage in more passive aggressive behavior like gossiping and whispering, and men are more likely to make negative in-your-face comments.

In keeping with the social work profession’s strengths perspective, it is also important to acknowledge additional issues that provide insight into what makes older bullies tick. First, bullies put others down in order to build themselves up, suggesting low self-esteem plays a role in their behavior. Second, loss is ubiquitous with aging in Western societies; examples include loss of independence, relationships, income, and valued roles. Such losses are especially salient for seniors who move into assisted living facilities, nursing homes, and other long-term care settings:  they may be seeking control at a time in life when they feel exceptionally powerless. Third, many long-term care residents may not have lived in a communal setting for years, if at all. Shared living requires adjustments around territory such that feelings of jealousy and impatience often arise. Bullying behaviors related to territoriality, as with selection of channels for shared televisions, dining room seating…etc., may involve attempts to exert control and change public space into private space.

Individuals Who are Bullied

In contrast to individuals who bully, individuals who typically fall victim to bullies have trouble defending themselves. They do nothing to “cause” the bullying, but passive social interaction styles make them ideal targets for bullies to overpower and control. Victims may also experience a sense of powerlessness, but in this case because bullying experiences are unpredictable and they have difficulty preventing them and removing themselves from bullying situations.

There are two types of bullying victims, those who are passive and those who are provocative. Passive victims tend to show a lot of emotion, are often anxious, and typically do not read social cues well. Others often perceive them as shy and insecure. Among older adults, such victims may have early dementia or a developmental disorder. Sadly, minority status based on race, ethnicity, or perceived sexual orientation can also contribute to individuals being targeted for bullying. Recall that bullies have difficulty tolerating individual differences.

On the other hand, provocative victims can be annoying or irritating to others, such as by intruding into others’ personal space. They are often perceived as quick-tempered and may inadvertedly “egg” bullies on. Among older adults, such individuals may have a dementia-related condition that is more advanced than that of passive victims.

Intersections Between Mental Health Conditions and Bullying

Both schizophrenia and dementia warrant additional attention in relation to bullying.

Individuals with schizophrenia experience disordered thinking, a distorted sense of reality, hallucinations, delusions, a limited range of emotional expression, and poor social skills. Such characteristics can make these individuals prone to both exhibiting bullying behavior and being victimized by others.

Similarly, individuals with dementia have cognitive deficits that can contribute to negative behavior, including aggression. Bullying behavior in this context does not involve a conscious, planned attack on another person, but is most often linked to decreased impulse control or distorted perception leading to a sense of feeling threatened. Dementia-related behavior can also trigger retaliatory bullying by cognitively intact peers as an attempt to control the individuals’ problematic behavior.

Our next blog will address common reactions to bullying behaviors.
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

Reducing Senior Bullying: Conversation with Bullying Expert Robin Bonifas, PhD, MSW

This 50-minute audio addresses how organizations can implement programs to reduce senior bullying, discussing in detail issues touched upon in Dr. Bonifas’ blog series on Senior Bullying.  Listeners will learn:

How to discover the extent of senior bullying in your facility

Who should be involved in a task force to reduce senior bullying

How to distinguish between bullying and the problematic behavior of residents with dementia

Ways to create a positive environment that encourages caring behavior and thus reduces bullying

Instant Download: Only $10.99

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6 thoughts on “Senior Bullying, Part 2: Who bullies and who gets bullied?”

  1. I am 68 and a victim of bullying by the janitor of a low income senior apartment complex and at my wits end to know what to do. This started two months ago, in an ice storm. I am almost totally deaf from a head injury that damaged my middle ears. I have loss of balance, fall frequently, tinnitis, vertigo, and it does affect my personality. I tend to get anxious and depressed because I am a retired Rn Certified Risk Manager and find that I have to repeat things I do on the computer because of mistakes I make.

    I use to be a strong person, I worked for the Dept of Veterans Affairs for years before my auto accident, helping veterans who were suicidal, and also did post mortum psychological reviews on those who committed suicides. I was responsible for assessing patient care as well as monitoring physician performance. When I had to leave work, because the injury affected my concentration, and I had such difficulty with balance, paying attention to detail, etc I had to resign. I have been disabled since 98, and am almost totally deaf now. I just got my small dog certified as a hearing service dog, and she’s my little miracle.

    Because of my balance disorder, I was having negociating the ice and the janitor had left a garbage can blocking open a fire door, which serves as an entrance. I tried to push it aside, and when I did it fell over. I saw him coming back from the dumpster so I held the door for him, as it does not have door handles and locks automatically. This door does not meet American with Disability Standards which is another subject. When he got in, he threw the garbage can across the room scaring my dog so she flew out of her harness. I caught her but fell. I got up, without his assistance and then started to walk away. Another tenant was there, and I stood by him. The janitor approached me and I said good morning, at this point he clenched his fists and turned red. I said what is your problem, he said I don’t have a problem. I said can’t you say good morning nor can you say thank you for my holding the door, and he said I don’t have to speak to you. I did report this incident t the manager without a response back.

    Within a few days, I stared using a patio door exit to take my dog to the dog walk. He then, started sitting on the patio, glaring at me. He would stare at me, making me scared. I then stared going out another door, and he came outside, put one foot against the brick wall and glared at me, with the door blocked fully open. I then had to walk to the front of the building in the rain, and go in the front door, hoping I would not fall.

    The door to the patio broke, and this is a violation of NJ laws, as it is a fire exit. He will unlock one half the door, and he will sit on the patio for one to two hours when he is suppose to be working, to ensure I don’t try to use that door. I can’t because it is usally locked anyway, in violation of the law. I have filed a complaint with the State Fire Marshal regarding this issue, as this is dangerous. He will stare at me while I walk my little service dog. This is intimidating and frightening.

    I reported the janitor numerous times, that he was not working, he was sitting on the patio, when he was on duty, then when the maintence man comes in would go to the lobby to have coffee. He will unlock the broken patio door to allow a friend to go out and smoke, then lock it again. Same goes for the maintence man, who with the manager will go out there to smoke. I am also trying to get anti smoking laws in NJ upheld here, becasue we non smokers have no place to go outside to sit when it’s nice without being exposed to second hand smoke.

    The janitor will leave the light on in the janitors closet down the hallway from my apt. and leave his cleaning cart outside as if he’s inside. however he will be sitting on the patio again, watching me. I feel uneasy walking by this closet as I feel he is going to reach out and grab me.

    I don’t understand management, they know he’s not working when he should be, they have not put him on a shift that he can be supervised. When the woman upstairs moved out, he even took a bucket of dirty water with some kind of cleaner disinfectant, and threw it out the livingroom window, which came down and came in my livingroom window. Again I reported him and all I got back in a response was that she had taken care of it what ever that means.

    I am a very small woman, with severe osteoporosis, and frequent falls and high risk for fracture. I use a cane to help my loss of balance, and I also am holding my little hearing service dog.

    I don’t know what to do, the middle manager said she did not want to hear anything more about the janitor, she said to stop emailing her about him. They have done nothing to punish him, even though he is not working the hours he should, and we even though we are low income seniors do pay his salary. This man lives here with his wife and he’s also a tenant. This couple feel they own the place. We have a giant lobby for all to use, and he will come down and lay on the couch and turn on football or baseball games, she will do games or take over the kitchen. As a result of their behavior other tenants no longer use the lobby area of the facility.

    I don’t know what to do when management failes to do anything about him, and when I notified the state they said to notify management. Now this man is throwing dirty kleenex into our plant holder, and we believe he poured coffee or cleaning detergent into our palm tree plant and almost killed it. Our holiday decorations have been stolen, and I found them on the lawn. We were told by management there is nothing they can do.

    We are thinking about moving because of this issue and others, but I wanted to tell my story. I gave my life helping others and now feel so helpless. I spent eighteen years in an abusive marriage before I got out, and had three broken ribs, so I am very sensitive to any kind of bullying, as I consider it as being abused again.

    • Ms. Birch, I’m sorry to hear of your troubles at your senior apartment complex. Maybe the office of long-term care in your state would be able to provide assistance, or you could notify the police. Documenting the instances of harassment would be helpful in either case. If you have a resident council, perhaps as a group you could express dissatisfaction with the service provided by the current janitor.

    • I’m not sure if I am allowed to comment to Edna who blogged in April 2012 about the janitor problem. However, if I am permitted, the scenario she describes sounds awfully familiar. I am having a similar problem with a night manager at our independent senior living community. He has slightly different duties. However, the hostility and revenge cycle + the attitude of management to my complaints is the same. I am also not the only person who has experienced and/or witnessed this type of behavior from him. There are other bullying problems here also, which are often perpetuated by one resident in particular who eavesdrops on conversations (both management and tenant) and gets them going in the malicious gossip hurdy-gurdy she has created. She and the night manager now hang out together and seem to collaborate and try to keep the malice going round. I have been here almost two years and have been the target of much malicious gossip and fictitious complaints to management because I am perceived as “different”. This pattern began when I was the new kid on the block and continues to this day. It affects my ability to have a quality of life and I have decided to get on some waiting lists and see if I can move, although it is very hard on me physically and mentally to have to resort to this. It’s a very strange situation in a community that has advertised itself as “supportive” . It definitely doesn’t feel that way, and my attempts to get a solution from management seem to have earned me nothing but management resentment and resistance. You have my sympathy and I think there is a definite problem brewing in the senior “independent” living situations nationwide that are a real challenge to address and for some of us to live with in the meantime. I suspect that this will continue to be an issue as us “boomers” continue to move into low-income, senior living “communities” — both independent and assisted living.

      • Thanks for sharing your experience, Josephine. It sounds like you’re doing what you can to handle the situation, and the suggestions I gave Edna might be helpful in this one as well (contacting your state’s office of long-term care, documenting the harassment, using the group forum of the resident council). Another possibility, if you can think of an appropriate way to do this, is to use humor to defuse the tension and change the dynamic. Humor works best when it reflects that we are all people in this together. You’d be the best judge of whether or not humor would work in this case, but an example would be how Ronald Reagan diffused the age issue during his presidential campaign with the comment that he “wouldn’t hold his opponent’s youth and inexperience against him.”

    • thank you for posting. I also was a nurse , had brain cancer, , and many other things associated with it. I live in my apartment and management does nothing about anything , no matter how many different managers we have had. I am very quiet and I isolate to stay out of all the squabbles, and the suing each other that goes on here. It is unhealthy for me, but there is nowhere else to go. I have a couple friends, but it is still difficult as I try to advoid most everybody here, as it is just so stressful with all the issues between seniors. I am now going to be 65 this year , and i had to retire at 50 due to my disabilities. These are our golden years?? But i just keep busy and do lots of reseRCH, BUT I HAD TO RESPOND TO YOUR VERY HEARTFELT POST! I am deeply sorry for what you are going through !


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