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Bullying within the Senior Population

Bullying Within the Senior Population - It's No Laughing Matter

By Don Drake, Connelly Law Offices, Ltd.

Estate Planning Rhode Island
Attorney RJ Connelly III

"The issue of bullying within the senior population is a growing concern that demands immediate attention," says professional fiduciary and certified elder law Attorney RJ Connelly III. "As the United States continues to age, the prevalence of this problem is becoming increasingly apparent in nursing facilities, senior centers, retired living communities, and other locations where seniors socialize. Reports suggest that ten to twenty percent of seniors experience bullying from their fellow seniors. It's high time we take this issue seriously and take concrete steps to address it. But what is it, and how do we classify bullying in senior care facilities?"

As defined by the federal government, "bullying" includes the following key components:

  1. Behaviors that are aggressive and unwanted.

  2. A situation where one party has more power than the other is commonly referred to as an imbalance of power and may be present in very innocuous situations, such as naming a "group leader" for

  3. Repetition of behaviors increases the likelihood of their continuation if not corrected.

Direct and indirect forms of bullying include physical assault, verbal harassment, spreading rumors and false stories, and mocking others.

Senior Bullying is Not a Playground Term

The term 'bullying' is commonly used to describe aggressive behavior, but it is often associated with playground disputes and childish conflicts. When referring to such behavior among adults or seniors, using the word 'bullying' may not accurately capture the severity of the situation. Victims of aggressive behavior, particularly among the elderly, feel that the term 'bullying' does not fully convey the harm that they have experienced. It is important to acknowledge that such behavior can involve intimidation, manipulation, physical and verbal assault and should be referred to as such. Using terms like 'bullying' may trivialize the harmful impact of such behavior, and we should not dismiss it as mere schoolyard antics.

Senior bullying
Tremedous harm can occur as a result of "bullying"

It is also essential to understand that the range of these behaviors is different based on various sub-sets of seniors. For instance, seniors with a history of addiction or criminality often use these behaviors to get what they want because being homeless or engaging in street activities to get drugs forced them to develop a range of coping behaviors not seen in the average senior. These behaviors are long-term and ingrained. The same holds for those diagnosed with some forms of mental health disorders.

"We have seen such behaviors for decades but there is an increase in the reports of such activities," states Attorney Connelly. "I’m not sure if the behavior has increased or we are just seeing more of it because we now have many more seniors in programs today than in the past and some with rather troubled histories. But in any case, it is unacceptable." Below are two true examples of seniors in the Boston area with toxic behaviors that created problems for staff and residents alike.

Tom the Manipulator and Mean Gina

Tom had faced hardships throughout his life, residing in various shelters, treatment programs, and even correctional facilities. He transitioned to a senior living community from his prior residence in Boston's Mattapan neighborhood. Unfortunately, Tom's behavior proved disruptive from the start, as he reverted to old habits of using and attempting to sell illicit substances to others in the community. As a result, he underwent detox and entered a treatment program with the intention of reintegrating into the senior living community.

Senior bullying
Tom intimidated both residents and staff

Tom's problems reemerged after he returned to the senior community. He employed his charm to convince female residents to purchase various items for him, ranging from coffee to cigarettes, while using physical and verbal intimidation tactics to extract money and other goods from male residents. Tom even managed to manipulate and coerce staff members at the facility to cater to his demands.

Once, Tom confided in a staff member about his inability to purchase gifts for his grandchildren due to financial constraints. He managed to persuade the staff member to buy a radio from him at an exorbitant price, much higher than its actual worth, under the pretense of providing his grandchildren with an "unforgettable" Christmas.

There were three huge problems with Tom’s story:

  1. He did not have grandchildren.

  2. Staff were not allowed to buy or sell items to or from residents per the policies of the program.

  3. The radio he sold was stolen from another resident.

Tom took advantage of a staff member's act of kindness to coerce them into providing him with daily cigarettes. He threatened to report the staff member for purchasing a stolen item if he did not comply. The staff member eventually confessed to violating the program's policy, while Tom found amusement in the staff member's and other residents' naivety.

Senior bullying
Gina targeted the social worker

A female resident of another senior community, we'll call her Gina, resorted to coercing other female residents into giving her access to their EBT or DEBIT cards and emptying them. When a social worker on the unit confronted her about it, Gina began to spread rumors and subtly threaten the staff member. During one of their interactions, Gina mentioned a movie she planned to watch "about a social worker who pried too much into her client's life and was eventually murdered in an alley." She even invited the staff member to "watch the movie" with her, even though such a movie did not exist.

Gina also went to extreme lengths to track down the home address of a staff member, which she found on the internet. The staff member later received an envelope containing only a blank piece of paper. A few days later, Gina remarked to the staff member, "I would be terrified to receive an anonymous letter in the mail. Just the thought of someone knowing where I live is really scary."

The staff member reported the indirect threat to the program director, and Gina was relocated to another facility, along with a report of her manipulating behaviors.

Subtle Forms of Bullying

Most activities may take a much subtler form than the worst-case scenarios described above. These include:

  1. Negative gossip.

  2. Negative joking at another’s expense.

  3. Sarcasm.

  4. Making condescending eye contact, using weird facial expressions, or mimicking someone else's walk, accent, or idiosyncrasies are all ways of belittling and mocking someone.

  5. Intentionally embarrassing someone or exploiting their insecurities.

  6. Social exclusion (others are playing cards or involved in an activity and totally ignoring the person).

  7. Sabotaging another’s happiness or well-being (hiding mail, failing to tell someone about an upcoming event, etc.).

Remember this: not all aggressive behavior is malicious; some may stem from age-related changes in the body and the environment.

When Aggression Has Clinical Causes

Moving into an elder living community can be stressful for some seniors, leading to feelings of powerlessness. This may cause them to act aggressively, both verbally and physically, to regain some sense of control. Additionally, seniors with dementia who are unable to express their distress positively may also exhibit such behavior.

In situations like these, certain risk factors could be present. These include:

  1. Being a new member of the community.

  2. Being thrust into a situation they are unfamiliar with (e.g., moved from a comfortable living situation into a community setting).

  3. Doesn’t know what to expect from others.

  4. Lacks a support system.

  5. Is heavily dependent upon others.

  6. Suffers from a mental illness.

  7. Quiet, shy, or passive behaviors.

It is expected that staff who conduct biopsychosocial assessments (those specifically designed for seniors) share the background of elderly individuals transitioning to a new culture with other staff members who interact with them daily. Knowing if someone has a history of criminal activity or a negative lifestyle is essential in assessing whether aggressive behavior is a part of their continued lifestyle or if it's due to a significant change in their living situation.

Senior bullying
All is not well in some senior communities.

Staff Interventions

For staff in programs where bullying occurs, we recommend the following:

  1. Establishing a firm policy is crucial for any agency or community to prohibit any form of disrespectful or threatening behavior towards fellow seniors or staff members. It is important to clearly communicate this policy to all members to ensure that such actions are not tolerated. Policies and procedures should be in place to reinforce this stance and prompt intervention, accountability, and responsibility are necessary in putting an end to these behaviors.

  2. It is imperative for the treatment team or program director to swiftly take action by implementing interventions designed to recognize and alter behaviors that are considered disrespectful and threatening. This involves identifying the underlying reasons for the perpetrator's need for control. In some cases, the behavior may have become deeply ingrained and persistent. Thus, prompt identification and addressing it through a behavioral plan or contract is vital for the welfare of all parties concerned.

  3. Individuals who have experienced victimization require aid and reinforcement, and may find it advantageous to acquire techniques to safeguard themselves in similar circumstances. This could entail learning assertiveness skills that empower them to advocate for themselves. However, it is important to note the following caveat.

  4. Teaching assertive skills to victimized seniors is recommended, and it is equally important that this is done by someone who possesses the appropriate skills and empathy. Seniors who lack assertiveness may often feel that it is their fault that they have been victimized. They might blame themselves for not being able to protect themselves. This can be an unrealistic expectation since they have spent most of their lives in a safe and secure environment, surrounded by people who loved and respected them. No one should live in constant fear at any age, and it's not their fault if they don't have these skills or cannot learn them. Punishing them because of another's behavior is not the answer.

Take Action

"It's undeniable that dealing with aggressive or manipulative elderly individuals can be quite challenging," said Attorney Connelly. "In some cases, it may not be possible to alter their behavior, so the best course of action is to remove them from the program or evict them for the benefit of everyone involved. It's important to acknowledge that every senior, especially those who are spending their later years away from the familiar world they once knew, has the right to live in a peaceful environment. As providers of services for the elderly, it's our responsibility to offer them the safest surroundings and the best possible care they deserve."

Senior bullying

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