By Debbie Hommel, ACC/MC/EDU, MDEC, CTRS
When one thinks of the typical bully – the mean kid in the schoolyard that everyone fears, comes to mind.  However, many activity professionals have witnessed older adults demonstrating similar “mean” behavior to their peers.  Adult bullying behavior is being noted as an increasing problem amongst older adults living in communal settings.  Sometimes the behavior is just written off as an unfortunate condition of institutional living, with the facility doing nothing to understand and address the behavior.  Sometimes, the person is accepted as the “grumpy” mean person and everyone tiptoes around them hoping for the best.  The number of reported bullying behaviors in older adults and care communities is increasing.  This requires the facility to develop effective strategies, not only for the wellbeing of all the folks who live in the community, but to also address the unspoken needs of the person demonstrating bullying behavior. 

According to Wikipedia, bullying is defined as “the use of force, threat, or coercion to abuse, intimidates or aggressively dominates others. The behavior is often repeated and habitual.”  An imbalance of power or a power struggle is a contributing factor in bullying behavior.  The bully is trying to dominate others through verbal or physical attack.  There are several types of bullies defined and motivating factors behind bullying behavior.  All behavior is driven by an unmet need and bullying behavior is no different.  In older adults living in care communities, it is suggested that difficulty adjusting to the care environment may manifest itself in bullying behavior.
~Individuals who suddenly find themselves in a long term care setting, surrounded by individuals with various physical and cognitive deficits, find it difficult to accept they are now a part of this group of people.  In response, they make fun or disparage others with physical or cognitive deficits.  It is their way of saying they are better than these individuals and do not belong in the setting.
~There are those who are not used to sharing their living space with others and are accustomed to living alone and doing what they want, when they want.  Entering a common area and taking over the television without consideration to others or forcing peers to leave “their” seat or table may be examples of territoriality and striving to regain control over their environment.

Care communities are seeing different types of bullying behavior such as:
~Verbal bullying which includes verbal abuse, name calling, taunting, unwanted teasing, sarcastic remarks and even threats.
~Relational Bullying which includes ignoring, spreading gossip or untrue information about a person so others don’t like them and encouraging others to shun the individual.
~Physical bullying which includes actual hitting, slapping or shoving a person but also destroying or stealing an individual’s property.

Bullying behavior has negative effects on the care community. It creates a feeling of unrest amongst the entire population, especially when it is observed that nothing is done to protect those being bullied.  Many facilities are developing formal policies and strategies to respond to this growing problem.
~The first strategy is to ensure all residents living in the community feel free to report such behavior and a means to do so in a private way.
~Criteria for what is bullying behavior needs to be defined and shared with staff and residents, to ensure the behavior is identified and addressed.
~Meeting privately with the individual who is demonstrating bullying behavior to identify possible causes for the bullying behavior is an important step.  If it is self-esteem or adjustment issues, additional support should be provided with alternate coping mechanisms introduced.
~Providing the rest of the population with support in responding to the bullying behavior is also necessary.  Introducing the notion that bystanders who observe bullying behavior can diffuse a situation in appropriate ways is helpful.   Means to support those being bullied as opposed to passively watching the bullying behavior can be suggested.  Support groups to introduce specific verbal responses and role play to facilitate practice are helpful.
~Positive team building activities can be introduced throughout the community focusing on embracing diversity, empathy and creating a caring environment can be introduced to both staff and residents. 

This article is barely the tip of the iceberg when it comes to information on adult bullying.  The main point remains that adult bullying is something that cannot be ignored and communities need to develop relevant policies, strategies and trainings.  If no bullying behavior is being reported, it is suggested to look deeper because the vast majority of bullying behavior is not reported until it becomes a crises.    For more information, a google search of “adult bullying in nursing homes” brings up many articles. 

Information in this article was taken from “Bullying Among Older Adults: How to Recognize and Address an Unseen Epidemic” a book written by Robin P. Bonifas.  You can also check out the newest independent study program based on this book which is NCCAP approved for nine continuing education hours.