Some of our most traumatic memories have to do with childhood bullying. Unfortunately, some people never really outgrow this behavior. And those who were bullies as children sometimes revert to it again once they move to a retirement community.
There are a range of reasons why bullies thrive in retirement communities. Mild dementia problems that come with old age can sometimes relax the inhibitions people place on themselves, making some more likely to make derogative statements they once would have kept to themselves. In addition, growing older can come with a certain loss of control—and some people feel the need to bring a feeling of control back into their lives by asserting their dominance over others.
Whether you are concerned about a loved one experiencing bullying in a retirement community or are a resident dealing with the problem, you are not alone. Here are a few signs to look for—and what to do about bullying in a retirement situation.
Signs of Bullying in Assisted Living Communities
Domination of a few people in public spaces
Walk around the public spaces of your assisted living community. Check out the TV lounge, the rec room or game room, or the cafeteria. Is there a single person or group of people who seems to be monopolizing the area? If one person or a group of people is unilaterally deciding, for example, what shows to watch on television in the lounge, it’s possible there’s an undercurrent of bullying at this community.
A habit of exclusion
Dining halls can be notorious for attracting exclusive behavior. In high schools, cliques often dominate certain tables—and some people are simply “not allowed” to sit in certain groups. This can also be the case in assisted living facilities. Do the same people eat at the same tables every day? Is there assigned seating? If there isn’t, it could encourage cliquish behavior to develop. If certain groups exclude certain individuals, there could be a bully problem.
Loud and public insults
Just as in school, people in retirement communities may not hesitate to express their negative opinions about others. See if you can operate as a “fly on the wall” at an assisted living community for a certain period of time. Do you hear people gossiping? Is the gossip negative? Is anyone insulted to their face, or treated in a demeaning way in public? These are hallmarks of bullying.
If Your Assisted Living Community Has a Bullying Problem: What to Do
It’s sometimes difficult to get anyone to take action about bullying. Assisted living community staff members are often overworked and feel they have more important problems to deal with. However, it’s important to try—or the problems are likely to continue, or get worse.
Alert the staff of the senior center or retirement community. While some staff members may be too rushed and overburdened to listen to your concerns, others may see it as a serious issue and be willing to intervene. If you can’t get anyone at your facility to take the problem seriously, you have a few options, including your state’s Department of Social Services’ adult protective services division.
Seek out like-minded people
If it’s you—and not a loved one—who is facing the bullying, you can gain strength in numbers. If you are being bullied, chances are you are not the only one who has been targeted. Don’t let the bullies keep you isolated. Instead, make connections with like-minded people who can provide you with a sense of security and companionship. There is strength in numbers; bullies are less likely to bother a group of people than a single individual.
Confront the bully
This may or may not be the ideal step to take, and should be considered based on the individual situation. However, bullies will often not target people they perceive as strong and confident, and will not welcome direct confrontation. If you directly confront the person or people bullying you with the way their treatment is affecting your feelings and your health, it may get them to stop. Avoid being overly aggressive or threatening, but present an aura of strength and composure.
Most of us outgrow bullying behavior as we grow older—but for some, this is sadly not the case. Be aware of the signs of bullying, and don’t put up with abusive behavior from others. Find support among community staff and residents, and confront the bully if you have to and it’s appropriate. If you do, hopefully the problem will disappear.