As jarring as the question seems, it might be time to ask if your grandmother or other parent/grandparent is a bully. Most of us thought people outgrew bullying by the time they left High School. Then we became aware of the fact (acutely aware, in some cases) that many people are bullied on the job, by co-workers and by bosses. Now, we must recognize that bullying is alive and well in assisted-living communities, retirement communities, nursing homes, and other senior living facilities.
In a recent article about bullying in assisted living facilities, Jess Stonefield shared this story: “A few years ago, a former co-worker got a call informing her that her grandmother had been in a fight. She had punched another resident at her assisted living facility and the director needed a member of her family to come and calm her. In the moment, some colleagues laughed at the thought. ‘Go, Grandma! Way to take matters into your own hands!’ But as it turns out, the matter was serious. It was an example of the pervasive problem of bullying in assisted living communities.” [http://www.nextavenue.org/bullying-assisted-living/]
In a recent article published by AARP, quoting an Arizona State University gerontologist, reported that approximately 10 to 20 percent of residents in assisted living facilities, nursing homes and senior centers are bullied and otherwise mistreated by their peers. In fact, bullying is just as pervasive in senior living facilities as it is in schools, or anywhere else.
Wrongheaded thinking will simply argue that people have been bullied or have seen others bullied throughout their lives. They then ask why it matters in old age. But bullying in old age may be as harmful as it is in childhood. No one wants to be ostracized from a community they have chosen to be a part of in later life. In fact, isolation in one’s later years can be particularly harmful for people who have already given up a good bit of the lifestyle that gave them meaning and connection. This kind of experience readily contributes to depression, and it can lead to suicide.
In her article, Jess Stonefield notes that there are many reasons for bullying, even in this setting. “Some residents do it to try to regain some semblance of control over their lives or a sense of status they experienced in their early lives. Some try to cope with imminent health decline by ostracizing weaker patients. Others may have become physically or verbally abusive as a result of dementia or other cognitive changes.”
Two Questions to Ask
If you have a parent or grandparent living in a senior community of any kind, there are two questions to ask: (1) Is my loved one being bullied? and (2) Is my loved one a bully? It will not be easy to ask either of the questions. But it is important for your loved one and for others in the facility.
You cannot respond to a bullying issue or help your loved one cope with a situation in which they are begin bullied or may be bullied until you know what is happening. You must realize, initially, that your loved one may not wish to tell you about bullying or may not use the word bully. Some seniors may believe that their loved ones will not believe them when they report the behavior.
The first step will be to ask about bullying and its effect upon your loved one. For a true picture of what is really happening, it is wise to ask facility administrators and staff. But it is equally important to ask your loved one and others in the community or facility.
Sometimes people do not want to worry their loved ones, who might be the people who chose the facility. It is not unusual for people to hide the truth, either for that reason or because they do not wish to admit that they are being bullied or that they are bullies. If this happens, you will need to put yourself in a position to observe how your loved one interacts with others and discuss how they feel about the attitudes and actions of others.
What You Can Do
If you discover that there are instances of bullying, you need to discuss it with your loved one. You also need to find out what administrators and employees of the facility are doing about it. Action by administrators and employees of the facility is just as important in senior living facilities as it is in schools. If you have reported a problem and you are not seeing a response, you will need to continue to point out the problem to the staff and insist upon action.
If your loved one is the bully, there may be a need for some intervention to change that behavior. If your loved one is the victim, there may be a need for some intervention to help your loved one cope with the behavior and protect them from emotional harm. While many facilities will have a qualified professional on staff to provide the needed intervention and support, some may not. In those cases, you may need to intervene by getting help for your loved one.
With seniors, as with people of any age, there is a fine line between bullying and harassment. In a senior facility, you should expect an appropriate response from staff and administrators. If, however, you have reported the issue several times with no response, and your loved one is being harmed by the bullying behaviors, it might be time to talk with an attorney about next steps to protect your loved one.
Your grandmother may not be a bully, but she may be the target of bullies. Changing the environment may require more than asking a few questions.
Matters of bullying in any facility are surrounded by very fine lines of responsibility and liability. If you believe you have done all that you can to remedy a harmful situation in a senior facility without results, you may wish to discuss the matter with a trusted attorney. Altizer Law, P.C., has been helping clients with matters of abuse and neglect in nursing homes for many years. We are here to help you and your loved one if you need us.