On Bullies and Bullying

“They are so mean to each other,” the administrator tells me.

“There is a group of them that says terrible things to some of the other residents.”

“They act like children – the way they fight with each other!”

“They are a bunch of bullies and should be ashamed of themselves – at their age!”

Do I believe that elders act this way?

Yes.

Do people of any age sometimes act this way?

Yes.

Why is my stomach hurting when I think about this topic?

Perhaps it is because no one likes a bully (or maybe I am remembering the time my childhood bully punched me in the stomach). But it is unsettling me and I’m not sure why yet. What I do know is that when I get this feeling in the pit of my stomach, I have to hold the topic or idea in front of me and work through it. Will you help me do this, for the sake of my stomach?

There has been a lot of attention lately about “elderly bullies”. My sense is that it might refer to a lot of different ways of acting, but in this context the term bully is usually used to describe older individuals who are mean to others – they might exclude them from activities, or generally treat others in an insulting, rude, or offensive way.  The term is usually reserved for actions from one elder to another, not necessarily from an elder to a professional, although this could also be the case.

More broadly, the term bullying is defined as “unwanted aggressive behavior” toward another. Many definitions also include that this behavior is repeated and that there is a power imbalance between the individuals.

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Bullies have unfortunately been around forever. Most of the time, when we have talked about bullies, this has been centered around children. So, this is kind of new to consider bullying among elders. However, it is not necessarily a phenomenon for just the very young and old. People of any age bully each other. Have you heard of mean tweets?

I worry over how we are thinking about and addressing bullying in elders, and how this might be related to their age and the way we think about growing older.

I have more questions than answers. However, perhaps these questions will challenge us to think more deeply about bullying.

What are we considering bullying?

I’m not entirely clear on when and how we are using the term in the context of elders. What is actually happening to label it as bullying? If Mrs. Wilson one day yells at Mr. Gomez in their art class, because he is “going too slow” is this considered bullying? Or, is it just a rude way of Mrs. Wilson expressing her frustration? If a group of (older) women tell the “new person” she can’t sit with them for lunch, are they being bullies? Or, are these ladies exercising their rights as adults to choose who sits with them (even though this is not polite)?

If the people involved were younger, would we consider it bullying?

Is bullying in the eye of the beholder? Maybe it is defined by the reaction of the person being bullied. Does calling an interaction bullying really help us to understand the situation and look at it from different perspectives?

bully-655659_1920Is bullying even the right term?

I imagine we are using this term to reflect what we see in bullying among children, especially given recent, necessary attention to this painful experience. Perhaps there are similarities to what we see in bullying with children, but there are also big differences. Similarities might be the aggression, the sense of ganging up on an innocent person, and the bully demonstrating power and control.

The differences might be that with bullying in children, we are talking about humans who lack growth – they are developmentally immature. In other words, they don’t know much yet about how to interact in this world. They have little life experience. With bullying in elders, these are individuals who have extensive life experience and are developmentally mature adults.

Here is another major difference. With children, we, “the adults”, are in a position to guide them regarding how they should act. This is based on the premise that children do not know better. With elders, you could argue that we, “the adults”, do not need to guide them on how to act, as they are adults too. In fact, they could have more life experience than we do. So, it is adults telling other adults how to act. It is important to note that elders likely do know what it appropriate behavior, even if they are not acting in ways that we think appropriate.

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When we talk about older people as bullies it attaches a label that is used primarily with children. It has the potential to suggest that this behavior is child-like, and that the people doing it are children. Yet, they are adults.

The term bullying might not adequately capture the complexities of the actions of an elder, especially when these actions are possibly the result of a lifetime of experiences, personality, the current environment, coping mechanisms, etc.

Could the way we see bullying be reflective of a paradigm of growing older?

There is pretty clear evidence that this unfortunate paradigm does exist. In this paradigm, older people:

  • Should always be nice.
  • Should always “behave”, i.e. do what people tell them to do, or don’t do what we don’t want them to do.
  • Need to fit into “our” way of doing things.
  • Are essentially like children and need to be managed.
  • Are seen as helpless.
  • Are not asked for their perspective.
  • Need to be protected and kept safe at all costs.

According to this paradigm, older people who are not nice, and do not behave the way we think they should, need “us” to tell “them” how to act.

Why would elders bully?

I imagine there are many reasons why elders are acting like bullies. Maybe they were always bullies. Maybe this is how they exert power and control over others because they feel powerless and are lacking control. Maybe they are living with deep emotional pain. Maybe that is how they respond to seeing others around them living with various cognitive and physical challenges, and it reflects their own fears. Maybe they are complex human beings.

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Why are we so focused on bullying in elders (as opposed to other adults)?

It seems like most of our concern about bullying related to elders is with those living in long-term care (nursing homes, assisted living, continuing care retirement communities, etc.) or otherwise being served by a program like senior centers, adult day, etc. In other words, all situations in which “we”, the professional, have both a sense of responsibility for their security and well-being as well as sometimes a sense of control over their actions.

This is a unique situation when you consider that bullying happens at every age, and we are not always focused on addressing it in other situations like we are with elders. Bullying happens in the office, in PTA meetings, in book clubs. Yet we don’t often see anti-bullying programs in these situations, to manage the young-to-middle-aged adults. The difference with elders seems to be that we, the professionals, think we need to manage bullying. This leads me to a related, important question.

What is our responsibility, as professionals, to intervene in situations in which we see bullying in elders?

When do we step in? Certainly, do not want elders to be hurt by offensive, aggressive words and actions. We want to provide a sense of security. At the same time, we need to be mindful of paternalism and infantilizing elders, even if we feel they are acting immature.

What about people with dementia who are being treated terribly by their peers? What if they cannot defend themselves?

I suspect the answers to this are complex and dependent on many factors, including the level of harm done and the ability of the person being bullied to defend himself or herself. It seems like it also goes back to understanding what is actually happening in a situation, from various perspectives. Perhaps our responsibility goes beyond the specific bullying situation to our role in bigger issues like creating community, connection, and a different culture of aging and care. So…..

What are “we”, as professionals, doing to create a culture of bullying?

I know this is not easy. But we do need to think about this. Bear in mind, this is not about blaming ourselves. This is about being introspective and authentic, because we are caring people who want to do the right thing. Let’s consider…..

How do we inadvertently create a culture in which people might not value each other, or know each other, or be afraid of each other?

Do we send messages that some people are “better” than others by separating people based on their independence/dependence level or cognitive status?

Do we boss older people around? Tell them what they need to be doing? Tell them what they should not be doing?

Do you limit people’s autonomy so that they feel they need to control situations and others with aggression?

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What are some things we can do to address this?

In the spirit of person-centeredness, understanding who people are and what matters to them, it is important to consider how we can have open, honest conversations surrounding bullying. I say “surrounding bullying” because I think it is more than what the term suggests, in terms of a focus only on the aggression, hate, rudeness, incivility, etc.

Although it is important to discuss what bullying means to people and how it should be addressed, it is more than that.

It is about the standards we create and uphold on how we treat each other in a community.

Maybe there are things we can do that can re-frame this conversation so that, rather than just focus on bullying, we focus on creating community, connection, purpose, acceptance, empathy, etc.

Perhaps we can even frame this conversation in terms of well-being – how we can explore what people need and create a culture that supports these needs in a very deliberate, proactive way. If we use the Domains of Well-Being from the Eden Alternative  as an example, how do we create a culture that supports identity, growth, autonomy, security, connectedness, meaning, and joy for each and every person we are serving. Would this create a bully-free zone?

This starts with the voices of elders. As we think more about what bullying means, elders, including the bullies themselves, need to be a part of this conversation. One way we can approach this conversation is by finding commonality in our shared experiences of feeling belittled, discriminated against, unacknowledged, ignored – things that likely each of us have experienced at some point in our lives, even bullies.

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