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Years ago as I shared a presentation at a local senior center, I was approached by a woman who asked me to write an article about mean girls. You might immediately think, "Why would I write about adolescent girls in a column directed at aging and health?"

This is where the misconception ends. While we envision bullying and "mean girl" behaviors as traits reserved for the young, unfortunately that is not the case. In fact "Elder Bullying" among the aging is more common than you may think.

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Bullying is defined as a distinctive pattern of harming or humiliating others. According to the American Psychological Association, "Bullying is 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."

I frequent communities filled with aging people of various backgrounds, experiences and personalities. Long ago, I began observing the phenomena of "mean girls." It should be clarified that elder bullying or rude and exclusionary behavior is not limited to women but usually has different characteristics between women than men.

We would all like to think that those with unpleasant personalities and domineering attitudes mellow as their hair turns gray, yet unfortunately, that is not the case. Just watch as a new resident comes into a retirement community.

Who will reach out to make that person feel accepted and who will shun them from the seat next to them and say, "It's taken." There are still cliques in the world of aging! Believe me, if you're not "in," you know it.

The "mean girls" behavior in the aging usually manifests in situations where people are living in some congregate-type housing, whether it be subsidized senior housing, assisted living or a nursing home. Bullying is estimated to take place in 10 percent to 20 percent of the population. I believe as an observer that bullying is far more common than reported and is too often overlooked as "just one of those things" among community living.

Bullying may be subtle in the form of ignoring or excluding certain people or it can be very obvious in the form of rude or nasty comments, gossiping and spreading rumors. Actions may be aimed at keeping certain people out of activities or gatherings.

Sadly, one of the most common examples of bullying that I notice is targeted at the weakest or frail, either physically or cognitively. Those with walkers or wheelchairs can be singled out in independent living communities and excluded because of perceived fragility. Commonly seen is the resident with cognitive impairments being shunned by the higher functioning residents.

Those who are aging and have not yet dealt with the worst effects of aging may actually be the ones who seem to indicate the least compassion for those who are more affected by aging and disability. It appears that the more highly functioning folks may not want to admit or accept that they too may decline as they age. They ignore the fact they may require more help one day, so they try to banish what "could be" or, in other words, "reminders of their future" from their circle.

So what can be done to reduce and eliminate bullying?

The first step is to recognize that senior bullying does take place. Address your concerns with the director or social worker of the community. Bring attention to the bullying if in social meeting places such as senior centers by speaking with staff and asking for assistance with resolution.

Dr. Eleanor Feldman Barbera offers these recommendations for senior communities:

  • Create policies and procedures’
  • Train staff: Employees need education so that they recognize bullying behaviors and understand the procedure to handle them within your organization.
  • Establish ongoing bullying prevention programs. Preventing bullying can't be accomplished in a single staff meeting. It requires regular training and ongoing discussion with staff and residents. Some examples of programs to reduce bullying are bullying awareness sessions, civility training and interventions that directly address the person who is bullying.

It is important to remember that bullying and the "mean girls" attitudes exist in the senior population. This phenomena is just as intimidating and destructive to the senior population as to the school-age group. We must not let it go ignored.

Jill Rosner is a registered nurse, certified geriatric care manager and owner of Rosner Healthcare Navigation. She provides patient advocacy and care management services to clients with health and aging issues. Contact her at JillRosnerRN@aol.com.

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