Mean Old Girls

Dementia training, open dining halls put bullying at bay in senior living

By Robin Hocevar

Zero tolerance policies for bullying may be starting as early as kindergarten, but the problem appears to be just as rampant at the other side of the life spectrum: senior living facilities.

According to a pilot study presented by Robin P. Bonifas, PhD, MSW, at the 6th Annual Spring Geriatric Mental Health & Aging Conference, 27 out of 29 residents were able to describe an incident of bullying or negative social interaction since moving into senior living facilities and others had witnessed such events. Late-life bullying was uncovered in senior centers, adult day health centers, senior housing, retirement apartments, and nursing homes in the study.

“Whenever you have a group of people together, it’s going to be a human failing,” rationalized Sarah Greene Burger, MPH, RN, FAAN. “It’s especially true if you talk about children because they’re vulnerable and it occurs with all adults out in the world too. It doesn’t seem as concentrated because we’re out and about so these things get dissipated. If bullying is going on at work, you go home at the end of the day. You have to always assume it’ll happen and be prepared to look out for those who are most vulnerable.”

Greene Burger continued that today’s senior citizens are the first generation living in a whole new institutional level, as previous generations have been cared for my family members. Far from just writing off the problem as old-age crankiness, she warned that the consequences of bullying in senior care can be deadly.
“Somebody may not go down to meals because they’re being bullied,” she cautioned. “It’s dangerous from a nutritional standpoint, obviously, but also because it’s easy to slip into depression. Males who have lost a spouse are already vulnerable to suicide.”

Assessing for Self-Care Deficits
Just as in the school yard, bullies in senior facilities tend to pick of victims with weak spots. Greene Burger recommended nurses keep a keen eye open not just to the medical needs of the residents but to potential social stigmas as well.

“Nurses can show concern for what’s causing a resident to sink to the bottom of the social pecking order and help make the person’s life easier,” she advised. “For example, many older people go through a self-care deficit phase where hygiene may be neglected and body odor is the results. Even though they’ll be resisted, nurses should ask these residents how they can help them with their bathing.”

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