Bullying can affect older adults, too
What do you think of when you hear the term “bullying?” Perhaps you envision a small child being beaten up by an older boy on the school playground, or a group of middle school girls gossiping about the “nerdy” kid in class.
But bullying isn’t limited to these types of scenarios as much as stories in the media may suggest. In fact, bullying is not experienced solely by the younger generation; it can impact a person of any age, at any time, and in a wide variety of ways.
In part this is because bullying can take many forms of unwanted, aggressive and repeated behavior. Besides the obvious physical and verbal forms, there are relational bullying (attempts to destroy the reputation or relationships of the individual), and damage to another’s property.
In addition, cyberbullying — in which people target their victims via social media and cell phone correspondence — has also come to be seen as a serious form of bullying.
Too common in schools
A large part of the reason we initially visualize a child or teenager as both culprit and victim of a bullying encounter is that the behavior is quite common among youth.
According to surveys, 28 percent of U.S. students in grades 6 to 12 have experienced bullying. Even in high schools, when you might think people have matured somewhat, one in five U.S. students say they have been victimized.
Child or teenage bullies may choose to behave in this manner due to a desire for power, popularity, or in response to an arbitrary prejudice or peer pressure. They may bully others by excluding them, spreading rumors, and verbally disparaging, or even physically hurting, them.
Older adult bullies
Still, the immaturity of a bully doesn’t necessarily fade with age. Surprisingly perhaps, many older adults have also been victims — or perpetrators — of bullying.
Information collected from various nursing homes, assisted living facilities, and senior centers throughout the nation corroborates this notion. Nearly 7,000 complaints of resident-to-resident conflict in nursing homes and assisted living facilities were reported by the National Ombudsman Reporting System in 2013 alone.
And 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, found that studies suggest about 1 in 5 seniors encounters bullying from their peers.
“There’s the clique system just like everywhere else,” Betsy Gran, a former San Francisco senior center assistant director, told the Associated Press earlier this year. “It’s like Mean Girls, but everyone is 80.”
Some older adults may find themselves reverting to this immature behavior due to physical pain, fear, loneliness or vulnerability.
The bullying exhibited by these older adults generally takes on the form of exclusion, rumors and verbal abuse. But in extreme cases, even physical abuse occurs.
Sound familiar? Clearly, not much has changed since high school for many of these individuals.
What you can do
Regardless of age, bullying can have a severely negative impact on victim’s lives. It can lead to enhanced feelings of isolation, terror and anxiety, and could even lead to suicidal thoughts or actions.
This is why it is so essential that those being bullied — as well as those who are doing the bullying — get help…from you. Despite the prevalence of bullying in today’s society, there are a myriad of things that people, younger and older, can do to keep bullies at bay.
First, if you observe someone bullying another, intervening on behalf of the victim can dramatically improve conditions. The most effective way to do so is as follows: Do not provoke the bully, but look them directly in the eye and politely ask them to stop.
This method is simple, but it works; bystander intervention has been shown to stop bullies about half the time.
In response to bullying toward kids, parents and grandparents can participate in preventing hostility by having discussions with their children and grandchildren about the negative impact of bullying, their responsibility to speak up if they witness bullying, and the importance of spreading love rather than hate.
In fact, having these kinds of discussions can be just as useful among older adults. Encourage open conversations among visitors to senior centers and residents of retirement communities about the topic.
Additional helpful steps include working to develop a code of conduct intolerant of bullying, providing confidential bullying reporting processes, and offering counseling to victims.
If you are victimized, never be afraid to speak to a trusted adult. For kids, this may mean a parent, teacher or counselor, while for older adults it could be someone like a staff member or boss.
You and your grandchild (or younger friend in the community) can work together to advocate for anti-bullying in your community. Brainstorm strategies about how to handle cruelty from peers. Learn about the psychological aspects of bullying, including why some individuals may feel the need to talk down to others, and whom they target.
Bullying is not something to be taken lightly. We can all do something to help prevent it.
Alexis Bentz is an 11th grade student at Thomas Wootton High School in Rockville, Md.