Senior Bullying, Part 6: Strategies for Targets of Bullying

Potential Individual-Level Interventions to Reduce Bullying Among Seniors: Strategies for the Targets of 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 Service, Boston, MA

Welcome to our final blog addressing issues of bullying among older adults. This time we are covering how to help individuals who are the targets of bullying.

Readers will recall from blog 2 Who bullies and who gets bullied? that individuals who fall victim to bullies typically 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.

Readers will also recall that 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 these individuals 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 because individuals who bully 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 inadvertently “egg” bullies on. Among older adults, such individuals may have a dementia-related condition that is more advanced than that of passive victims.

It is helpful to keep the above characteristics of bullying victims in mind when devising interventions to help minimize bullying. It is also critical to understand that individuals with dementia who are bullied require different interventions than individuals who do not have dementia. As readers are well aware, dementia impairs cognition and individuals in the middle stages of dementia are not able to learn new skills. Thus, intervention cannot be based on teaching these individuals how to deal with bullies. Rather, the facility staff and the environment have to fill that gap: staff members need to monitor individuals and redirect them from harm’s way. Environmental modifications can, of course, ease the staff’s burden somewhat, for example, using visual barriers that prevent wanderers from entering into others’ rooms. The interventions below are for intended for individuals who are targeted by bullies and have sufficient cognitive abilities to learn new skills.

Bullying victims can be helped by learning ways to prevent others from dominating them. Assertiveness training is a best practice approach for gaining such abilities and emphasizes the following:

  • Standing up for one’s rights
  • Seeking respect and understanding of one’s feelings regarding the impact of the bully’s behavior
  • Managing feelings of anger
  • Using direct communication strategies
  • Using “I” statements
  • Setting boundaries
  • Creating win-win situations

Individuals who are learning assertiveness skills can initially have some difficulty differentiating assertive behavior from aggressive behavior, so it is important to really help individuals understand the difference. If this distinction isn’t clear, victims can become “victim bullies” – people who are the targets of bullying, but also bully others in return. Teaching targets to make “I” statements, as noted above, is a useful strategy to both practice assertiveness and emphasize how it is different from aggressiveness. For example, in learning how to tell a bully about the impact of his or her behavior, victims might take aggressive statements like “You make me so mad” and “You are such insensitive person” and reconstruct them into assertive statements: “When you raise your voice at the table during mealtime, I have difficulty enjoying my meal” and “When you imitate the way I talk, I feel angry and embarrassed.”

Molly Nece has a series of U-Tube videos that readers may find helpful in learning strategies to teach assertiveness skills:

The Art of Assertiveness: Part 1

The Art of Assertiveness: Part 2

The Art of Assertiveness: Part 3

The Art of Assertiveness: Part 4

The Art of Assertiveness: Part 5

In closing, given that individuals who are targeted by bullies often have low self-esteem and negative self regard, it is important to foster their self worth and dignity. This is true regardless of whether the individual has dementia or not! Make special efforts to notice and comment on the individual’s strengths and showcase those strengths to others as appropriate. Involve them in activities and projects that provide a sense of accomplishment. Assure that they are able to get to the barber or beauty shop, have their nails done, beard trimmed – all those little things that help people feel good about themselves.

In summary, this series of blogs has covered several aspects related to bullying among older adults, including what bullying is, the types of behaviors that tend to occur, and the characteristics of bullies and individuals who are the targets of bullying. The last few blogs have presented our three-tier intervention model that emphasizes strategies to prevent and minimize bullying at the organizational level, the bully level, and the victim level. It has been great communicating with our readers and sharing our learning about senior bullying with you!

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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3 thoughts on “Senior Bullying, Part 6: Strategies for Targets of Bullying”

  1. Is there a process whereby an elderly resident at an assisted living residential home or the organisation itself can be sued for repetetive ‘elderly’ bullying towards a member of staff ?

    • Celia, it sounds less like a legal situation and more like a situation where the resident might need limits set on their behavior (if they’re aware of what they’re doing) or staff could benefit from additional training in how to handle this behavior or both.


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