Senior Bullying, Part 3: What is the Impact of Bullying?

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

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

In our experience, it is common for various senior organizations to take a passive stance toward bullying. At times, a perception of “that’s just the way people are” or “there’s nothing that can be done” influences inaction, but at other times passivity is related to a belief that bullying is merely a social irritant and doesn’t really cause any lasting harm. However, nothing is farther from the truth! Research indicates that older adults experience a range of negative emotions and responses to bullying. For example, among assisted living residents the following reactions are often reported (Bonifas, 2011):

  • Anger
  • Annoyance
  • Frustration
  • Fear
  • Anxiety/tension/worry
  • Retaliation followed by shame
  • Self isolation
  • Exacerbation of mental health conditions

In addition, as described in our first bullying blog “What is Bullying?” the following  ramifications have also been noted (Frankel, 2011):

  • Reduced self-esteem
  • Overall feelings of rejection
  • Depression
  • Suicidal ideation
  • Increased physical complaints
  • Functional changes, such as decreased ability to manage activities of daily living
  • Changes in eating and sleeping
  • Increased talk of moving out

It is also important to recognize that bullying behaviors can escalate to physical violence. For example, in September 2009, a 100-year-old nursing home resident was killed by her 98-year-old roommate over ongoing misperceptions regarding unequal sharing of room space.

The harmful impact of bullying is not exclusive to the recipients of such behavior: individuals who witness bullying also experience negative consequences. A common response is feeling intense guilt for not intervening, which can contribute to a sense of poor self worth. Furthermore, living an environment where bullying is allowed to occur creates a culture of fear, disrespect, and insecurity that can actually led to increased bullying as individuals retaliate against one another. Such environments also reduce resident satisfaction because residents feel that staff does not care about their well-being.

Up until this point, we have addressed bullying behaviors between seniors themselves, but bullying can also be targeted toward staff members of organizations serving older adults. Some residents or consumers may view certain employees as very different from them, creating an “us and them” mentality that can result in staff bullying. For example, in one of our cases, a resident repeatedly told a foreign-born worker that she couldn’t speak English properly and he would see to it that she was fired. As with seniors, such bullying behavior creates an environment of fear, disrespect and insecurity for staff, thereby decreasing their feelings of loyalty and commitment to the organization. These feelings have implications for retention and turnover. Furthermore, the possibility of staff retaliatory bullying and resident abuse also increases.

Our next two blogs will cover intervention strategies to help minimize bullying in senior organizations. We will begin with intervention ideas to create a caring environment at the organizational level, one that emphasizes respectful interactions among all individuals.

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

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4 thoughts on “Senior Bullying, Part 3: What is the Impact of Bullying?”

  1. The impact on me is, I’m a prisoner in my apartment (I live in public housing for elderly and disabled people, I’m 52 & physically disabled). I”ve had my person and character maligned, I’m terrified of a 49 year old male tenant, whose “disability” I’m not sure of, but he has an extensive criminal arrest record with several convictions for felony domestic assault, who started targeting me a month after I moved in. He’s over six feet tall, very physically intimidating and volatile, and goes out of his way to frighten and intimidate me. He’s a bully and stalking me. I’ve also learned that for all the talk about taking a stand against stalking, bullying, and not allowing abusers to control the lives of women, this guy feels entitled and emboldened by a public housing authority that doesn’t enforce the rules when it suits them.

    I’m discriminated against, I’m on a fixed income, on SSDI, I can’t afford to pay rent from a private landlord. It takes years to get another apartment with another housing authority, or a private complex for the elderly and disabled. When HUD, state and city governments started expanding “disabled” beyond physical and developmental disability, to include people with psychiatric illnesses, drug addiction and people with criminal backgrounds, they didn’t bother to ensure that the elderly and truly disabled weren’t going to be victimized.

    One thing I’ve learned from reading about social bullying in the context of senior and disabled housing, nursing homes and assisted living facilities is that unless such behaviors are not allowed to perpetuate, they only get worse. Without a place for residents, and their families to turn to, to report such problems when management refuse to address them, things will get progressively worse. I’d also like to point out that this is just a small slice of wider society, and when those that should know better allow this to happen to the most vulnerable society, it won’t be long before this is the status quo.

    People who are being subjected to this bulling and worse need advocates in their corner. If my experience is anything to go by, too many seniors and truly disabled Americans, on top of finding themselves targeted by bullies, are being condescended to, ignored and discredited for daring to reach out and ask for help. No one, including our elected officials take the matter seriously, even when presented with an information sheet, like the one I was sent by Marsha Frankel.

    • Mary, as I said in my reply to your comment earlier in this series, it sounds like you might need to contact the police about this matter, and to document the instances of harassment.


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