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Bullying in Assisted Living: How to Deal with a Growing Epidemic

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Imagine this scenario. After years of watching your aging parent grow increasingly frail, you and your family, with your loved one’s assent, decide it’s time to move to assisted living. You search out facilities in your community and find the one that seems ideal. Your parent moves in, but instead of thriving he or she becomes depressed and increasingly isolated. What’s going on?

According to AARP, there’s a 10 to 20 percent chance that your loved one might be a victim of bullying. It’s a problem most people ignore – but for victims of bullying the pain of mistreatment is very real, and the consequences potentially devastating.

We’ve read about the issue of bullying among seniors before, but according to this article that appeared just before Christmas on the financial website MarketWatch this type of mistreatment in assisted living facilities is far more prevalent than most people imagine. Here at AgingOptions we want to share this important issue with you, whether you’re a senior considering assisted living or a caregiver concerned about a loved one. The danger of bullying in senior housing is very real, and no one should have to suffer in silence when being mistreated by a fellow resident.

“The idea that bullying would exist among older adults may surprise many, and it often goes undetected or unaddressed in assisted living communities,” writes MarketWatch.  “But an estimated 10 to 20 percent of residents in assisted living facilities, nursing homes and senior centers are mistreated by peers.”  One senior living executive says that, in his observation, “incidents of bullying occur in assisted living settings, on average, just as much as they would in any neighborhood, family or school.”

The problem, says the article, is that the effects of this kind of mistreatment among seniors by their own peers has far-reaching consequences. “Reports show that bullying in adulthood may contribute to depression,” MarketWatch warns. “Socializing is an important part of longevity and well-being. Spending our later years in a community where we are outcast and ostracized can have a perilous impact on our health — even leading to suicide.”

According to AARP reports, hundreds of thousands of seniors nationwide endure abuse, not from staff, but from their own fellow residents. Examples can include “name-calling, bossy behavior, loud arguments and, at its most extreme, physical violence.” But, says AARP, these often go unreported because victims are embarrassed and ashamed, or afraid of retribution, just like it was back in junior high school. The best facilities adopt practices that aim to preempt aggressive behavior, such as requiring residents to sign a code of conduct and employing resident ambassadors to help newcomers feel safe and welcome in the community. Staff members help by coaching residents on how to handle snubs and aggression and how to step in when someone else is being victimized. “Offenders,” says AARP, “receive a written reprimand or, in the case of multiple complaints, stronger penalties.”

Why does bullying among seniors take place?  According to MarketWatch, “Reasons for bullying in assisted living facilities vary. 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.” But regardless of the reasons, loved ones may be required to take action, especially if the problem is as commonplace as these articles might suggest. Here are five things you should consider if you suspect that someone you care about is being bullied.

  • Ask the question. “Make it a priority to ask the community director about the issue of bullying,” says the article. “Ask what types of bullying incidents have occurred and how they have been dealt with.” Find out how the facility deals with the issue when it arises.
  • Watch and listen. If your loved one is avoiding common areas like the dining room and TV room, or is reluctant to take part in group activities, they may be the target of bullying. In that case go directly to the director of the facility to discuss it: it’s ultimately his or her responsibility to take the issue seriously.
  • Confront bullying behavior. Don’t delay! “If you notice an assisted living resident bullying someone — anyone — during a visit with your loved one, always call the behavior to the attention of community leadership. Bullying must be confronted in the moment so residents know they will always be protected and cared for.” This interventionist philosophy applies even if your loved one was not the recipient of the behavior. Zero tolerance is the only acceptable policy.
  • Have compassion. This applies to both bully and victim, whether your loved one is being bullied or is the perpetrator. “Try to understand that transitioning into a care facility can be difficult,” MarketWatch “Bullying is an outward symptom of a larger emotional problem. When staff or loved ones take time to find out what that problem is, you’ll be one step closer to solving it.”
  • Suggest a support team. If the leadership in the facility needs some guidance on how to deal with the issue of bullying, ask them to create “a support team of residents with caregiving personalities to provide loving guidance, friendship and advocacy.” This will help others avoid the danger of isolation that bullying can trigger.

As with so many retirement-related issues, the important thing is to take action.  Here at AgingOptions we talk with seniors every week who have ignored the critical need to plan adequately for retirement and now are paying the price. If these retirees could give one piece of advice to those about to take that giant step into retirement, we know what it would be: with one voice they would shout, “Plan ahead.” Entering retirement without a plan is like crossing the ocean in a ship without a chart! Instead of making that costly and even disastrous mistake, take a simple first step and join Rajiv Nagaich at an upcoming AgingOptions LifePlanning Seminar. Find out for yourself how powerful a LifePlan can be! Click here for details of upcoming seminars, and then register online or give us a call for assistance. Let 2018 be the year you finally set a real retirement plan in motion: a LifePlan from AgingOptions.

(originally reported at

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