If you were to move in to a senior center, I don’t think you’d expect to deal with the latest epidemic that it is becoming a bigger problem every day. Cliques and bullying are widespread in schools, but would you believe these issues also exist in nursing homes and senior centers? As unlikely as it would appear for grown adults to be bullies or exclude others from their “friend group,” seniors are just as guilty of these behaviors as kids. To help curb bullying issues, some senior facilities have had to introduce programs to educate their residents.
Betsy Gran, who worked as the assistant director at San Francisco’s 30th Street Senior Center, explained just how bad the situation can be, telling the NY Post: “There’s the clique system just like everywhere else. It’s like Mean Girls, but everyone is 80.”
The senior center certainly saw a need to assist their community with issues witnessed in the cafeteria and fights that broke out over karaoke, of all things. They paired with the nonprofit organization the Institute on Aging to develop an anti-bullying program.
Staff members participated in 18 hours of training to learn more about the causes that lead to bullying incidents and how to manage these conflicts. Seniors also attended classes to learn how to alert staff or intervene themselves in bullying situations. The center has signs and place mats that remind them it’s a “Bully Free Zone.”
Mary Murphy, 86, a retired real estate agent who took the classes, explained how the educational opportunities have helped, explaining: “I think in the past I would have just stayed out of it. Now I might be inclined to help.”
Robin Bonifas, a social work professor at Arizona State University and author of the book “Bullying Among Older Adults: How to Recognize and Address an Unseen Epidemic,” explained just how much of a situation this has become, citing studies that showed 1 in 5 seniors experiences bullying.
Typically, these incidents come from the communal setting but there are also the worries and stress of aging, as the elderly start to experience loss of independence and control and bullying allows them to regain some of the power they believe they’ve lost.
Bonifas explained: “It makes them feel very out of control and the way they sort of get on top of things and make their name in this new world is intimidating, picking on people, gossiping.” Interestingly, this issue hasn’t gotten a lot of attention until recently with campaigns now bringing the bullying issues to the forefront, including a booklet that circulated last year from the National Center for Assisted Living.
Katherine Arnold, a member of the Human Rights Commission in St. Louis Park, Minnesota, who created a PSA about bullying and gossiping among seniors, explained: “In the life cycle, it doesn’t go away. There’s really not a lot of escape.”
Pamela Countouris is a schoolteacher who runs a Pittsburgh-based consultancy that offers training on bullying and says it typically involves name-calling among seniors rather than being physical altercations. Women are more likely to be bullies than men.
While Countouris’ training originally started with school bullying, she has focused her attention on seniors by providing training sessions that help curb these incident. She has heard a variety of bullying stories in the senior space, including laundry room squabbles and bingo room bullying, which she calls “the devil’s game,” as veteran players often accuse lucky newbies of cheating.
Countouris noted: “I didn’t realize it was an underground society where people could be mean to each other.”