Michele's Blog

Senior Bullying

By Michele Scott

Mankind has come a long way and made incredible advances in medicine, technology, exploration and unfortunately in bullying. Seniors and the elderly report being subject to insult, criticism, taunting and bullying by family members, friends, neighbors, spiritual leaders and medical professionals. Not everyone in this list is guilty of bullying and most who do, don’t do it intentionally. Yet today everyone is in a hurry - leading busy lifestyles and adjusting to a fast-changing environment.

Snapping, rushing, nagging or arguing can be construed as bullying by a sensitive, mentally challenged, or seriously ill senior.  Researchers report social workers have entered a senior’s safe place and talked to fast, to soft, over their head or down to them making them feel hurt, frustrated and disrespected. Even professionals providing services, transportation, meals and care are often rushed and forget their words can make the elderly feel demeaned, belittled and denigrated. Seniors, especially those diagnosed with a mental or behavioral disorder feel bullied; unfortunately, this bullying can lead to loss of a desire to communicate, emotional flight or fright, increased behavior disorder, anxiety and stress.

Children and grandchildren caring for the elderly often fail to choose their words wisely. Many are frustrated with the task, in a hurry to complete a chore or have grown weary of the responsibility of caregiving. Psychologists report the simplest turn of a phrase, chose of a word, or throw away sentence can cause a senior to shut-down. Left feeling their very existence is causing pain, they experience chronic loneliness, seclusion and internalizing isolation. In short they feel they are a nuisance – and yes, this is a form of bullying.

Outside of the home environment the situation continues. The Chicago Tribune reported on May 12, 2018 (online): “Nursing homes, senior centers and housing complexes for the elderly have introduced programs, training and policies aimed at curbing spates of bullying, an issue once thought the exclusive domain of the young.” Robin Bonifas, a social work professor at Arizona State University and author of the book "Bullying Among Older Adults: How to Recognize and Address an Unseen Epidemic," said existing studies suggest about 1 in 5 seniors encounters bullying. She sees it as an outgrowth of frustrations characteristic in communal settings, as well a reflection of issues unique to getting older. Many elderlies see their independence and sense of control disappear and, for some, becoming a bully can feel like regaining some of that lost power. "It makes them feel very out of control," Bonifas said, "and the way they sort of get on top of things and make their name in this new world is intimidating, picking on people, and gossiping."

The art of Caregiving, and yes, it is an art – can be physically, mentally and emotionally draining. Children caregivers often experience sadness, grief, and feelings of missing out on extracurricular activities and childhood events. Many have trouble in school, problems fitting in and making friends. They blame the patient, display frustration in communicating and become lackadaisical in delivering care. This is especially true if the patient is a parent or sibling.

Researchers found bullying in the home if often unintentional, however The American Psychological Association defines bullying as “a form of aggressive behavior in which someone intentionally and repeatedly causes another person injury or discomfort. Bullying can take the form of physical contact, words or more subtle actions.”  

What can you do?  Prepare your loved one (patient) for conversations in today’s vernacular. Explain changes in the way people live and the way they communicate. Let them know a snappy word, short sentence, or unkind word could easily be attributed to the person’s state of mind. Suggest constructive feedback they can give the person, how to express discomfort with a conversation, and what displayed emotions should be taken seriously - and which should be reported as bullying.

No one is expected to put up with mean or cruel treatment and bullying is a definite no, however seniors and the elderly over 75 grew up and lived in a friendlier world; a kinder world. People displayed more integrity and more respect. Many of the words they labeled “curse words” are freely used today. Bullying will happen. It is up to you to identify it through open, honest communication. Failure to address it can lead to chronic psychological and extreme physical damage.