Schoolyard thugs who prey on weaker or vulnerable classmates may grow up, but they don’t go away – even when their hair turns gray, experts say.
An increasing number of senior citizens are being victimized by other seniors, they say. The bullying varies but includes bossing others around, verbal putdowns, spreading rumors and sometimes physical violence.
According to one estimate, 10 to 20 percent of residents of senior facilities and those who regularly visit senior centers have endured some form of bullying.
“Bullying is about power, and that drive for power doesn’t diminish with age,” said SuEllen Fried, a Prairie Village, Kan., resident who formedBullySafeUSAand has written four books on bullying. “People who are seeking power are always trying to find vulnerable people that will succumb to their terrors and intimidation.”
Just as attention to bullying online and at work has grown in recent years, more people across the United States are talking about seniors who bully other seniors.
A woman who lives in a Massachusetts retirement residence last year told a newspaper there that she and others endured racial slurs and Latino residents were ordered to speak English. Other residents complained about abusive language, disruptions at tenant meetings and physical threats, The Sun Chronicle reported.
“We all hear about the bullies in the schoolyard, and the workplace bully, yet what do we think happens to those people when they grow old?” said Robin P. Bonifas, an assistant professor at Arizona State University who studies senior bullying. “Bullying is not just something that is exclusive to children, but it seems to be a lifelong occurrence.”
Last year, a resident of a Kansas City, Mo., senior housing facility tried to overdose on prescription pills after another resident prevented her from spending time with a sibling who also lived in the facility, a social worker said.
It left one sister thinking she had become a burden to her sister. Staff intervened after the suicide attempt and provided the sister with therapy. Her sibling told workers she did not intend to neglect her sister but didn’t know how to respond to the bully.
The sisters declined to elaborate out of fear that the bully, who still lives in their building, would retaliate.
“Just like we have heard about teenage girls committing suicide because of bullying and cyberbullying, this is still happening to people, because the same folks who are very vulnerable to being targets, they are still very vulnerable,” said Deb Babbitt, a Kansas City social worker who has given more than a dozen presentations on senior bullying over the past last year.
Seniors who bully typically have experienced loss, experts say. They may have recently moved into an assisted living facility or senior apartment building.
“So now you (the senior) need help with bathing. You need help putting your shoes on or managing your medicine, or eating,” Bonifas said. “They are not as valued as much in the community or workplace and maybe not as important in your family system as you used to be.”
That magnitude of loss creates a need to be in control of something.
“One thing they can control is bossing other people around,” Bonifas said.
Senior bullies, like other bullies, tend to have less empathy for others and have difficulty seeing how their behavior affects others. They have a low tolerance for differences and get easily annoyed by others, especially those they perceive as different. For men, their sexuality may be openly questioned. For women, a bully may spread rumors about them being promiscuous.
“Bullying is bullying no matter what the age, and it doesn’t go away when people get out of high school,” Babbitt said.
A worker at a Platte County, Mo., center has to remind seniors enjoying a video bowling game to play fair. Sometimes the intense play will lead to insults, the worker said.
In another incident, an 84-year-old woman began using a wheelchair after a stroke that left her partially paralyzed and with slurred speech. She returned to her senior apartment building after rehabilitation.
The resident bully soon set her sights on the stroke victim. The bully frequently complained her wheelchair was too wide for the hallways, that she didn’t take care of herself and smelled, said people who were familiar with the matter.
The stoke victim belonged in a nursing home, said the bully, who once threatened to report her to welfare authorities. Shunned by her neighbors and afraid of the bully, the stroke victim became depressed and later moved to a nursing home, where she died.
Victims often experience anxiety and depression, which can lead to increased blood pressure, fatigue, increased isolation, feelings of rejection and reduced self-esteem, Babbit said.
“This population is already vulnerable, so emotional stresses like this are really big deals to them,” she said. “If they feel they cannot walk out of their apartments without being picked on by the mean girls in the community room, then they are going to start to isolate even more and not reach out.”
It is important seniors know there is help, experts said.
Marlene Katz of Leawood, Kan. frequently visits nursing homes and retirement facilities to teach seniors how to stand up to bullies. The sessions include role-playing and storytelling.
“What I hope to accomplish is to help people transform whatever pain seniors might have engrained within themselves or have against another senior, (and) turn that pain and aggression into kindness,” Katz said.