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What You Can Do About Bullying in Assisted Living

Unfortunately, patterns of mistreatment don't always end after middle school


Part of the Transforming Life as We Age Special Report

A few years ago, a former co-worker got a call informing her that her grandmother had been in a fight. She had punched another resident at her assisted living facility and the director needed a member of her family to come and calm her. In the moment, some colleagues laughed at the thought. “Go, Grandma! Way to take matters into your own hands!” But as it turns out, the matter was serious. It was an example of the pervasive problem of bullying in assisted living communities.

The idea that bullying would exist among older adults may surprise many, and it often goes undetected or unaddressed in assisted living communities. But an estimated 10 to 20 percent of residents in assisted living facilities, nursing homes and senior centers are mistreated by peers, according to an AARP article quoting an Arizona State University gerontologist.

What’s the Big Deal About Bullying?

According to David Cole, director at Welbrook Senior Living in Santa Monica, Calif., incidents of bullying occur in assisted living settings, on average, just as much as they would in any neighborhood, family or school.

So, you might ask, if many of us survived bullying in middle school, why does it matter as we continue to age?

Reports show that bullying in adulthood may contribute to depression. 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.

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

Is your loved one being bullied in an assisted living facility? Could your loved one be a bully with other residents, and if so, what can you do about it? Here are five tips:

5 Tips for Dealing with Bullying in Assisted Living

1. Ask the Question: Whether your loved one is researching assisted living communities or has been in one for a long time, make it a priority to ask the community director about the issue of bullying. Ask what types of bullying incidents have occurred and how they have been dealt with. Does the community take a proactive approach to prevent bullying? What steps are in place to empower residents to speak up if they are being bullied? This issue is too important to leave to chance. Arm yourself with knowledge before a bullying incident occurs.

2. Watch and Listen: Is your loved one avoiding shared spaces like dining rooms and TV rooms? Is he or she less willing to participate in group activities? These are both signs that the person may be the target of bullying. If you sense that bullying is happening, go directly to the director of the facility to discuss it. Indeed, according to Welbrook’s Cole, leadership needs to make anti-bullying efforts a priority throughout the community so the most fragile residents always feel safe and protected. “There are some things that cannot be assigned to other staff,” he says. “They must come from the top to be taken seriously.”

3. Confront Bullying Behavior — in Real Time: 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. Allowing situations to “play out” and addressing them later will create the impression that bullying is sometimes allowed. Even if your loved one was not the recipient of the behavior, he or she could be if the bullying is tolerated. Visitors and residents alike have a responsibility to keep the community safe by reporting bullying whenever it happens.

4. Have Compassion: It’s important to have compassion — for both the bully and the victim. Whether your loved one is being bullied or is the perpetrator, try to understand that transitioning into a care facility can be difficult. 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.

5. Suggest a Support Team: Cole recommends asking leadership to create a support team of residents with caregiving personalities to provide loving guidance, friendship and advocacy to residents who are “becoming lost.”

You don’t need to wait until your loved one is impacted by bullying to protect him or her. Talk about it. Confront it. After all, you may be in a similar situation one day. It’s what you would want your children to do for you.

By Jess Stonefield
Jess Stonefield is a contributing writer on aging, technology, senior care, housing and the greater longevity economy for publications such as Forbes.com, Entrepreneur and CNN Money. She is passionate about impact investing and the greater concept of "equitable equity" — spreading wealth to all levels of our society. She is a communications expert for Senior Living Fund.

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