Bullying just as prevalent in senior-living centers as in schools

Bullying just as prevalent in senior-living centers as in schools

CHAMPAIGN — Bullies don't just lurk in school corridors and on social media. Sometimes, they're in senior-living facilities spending their golden years picking on their neighbors.

Take it from Andrea Butler, the resident coordinator at Round Barn Manor senior apartments in Champaign. She has seen senior-to-senior bullying there and elsewhere, and the impact it has on the victims.

"It can be pretty bad," she said.

While both men and women can be bullies at any point in their lives, Butler said it's often the older women she has observed in senior-living arrangements who are prone to form cliques and pick on people.

The way she sees it, these women probably ruled the roost at their own homes, and after they move to senior-living places, they want to run the show there, too.

Senior-to-senior bullying in residential facilities such as nursing homes, assisted-living facilities and apartment buildings for older adults isn't new, but it has been brought into the open more in recent years.

Some studies have suggested as many as 20 to 24 percent of older adults in senior-living places are bullied. By comparison, a 2013 CDC study showed that an average of 20 percent of high-schoolers nationwide experienced bullying.

Sometimes, this brand of bullying is connected to certain health conditions that can lead to aggressive behavior, according to the National Center for Assisted Living.

Research has also suggested making the transition to a senior housing facility can be stressful and cause some people to feel a loss of control over their own lives — and then act out in response.

"People get a sense of power from bullying," said Chelsey Byers Gerstenecker, family-life educator with the University of Illinois Extension, which will host a program on this topic next month.

But it's also likely that at least some senior bullies have been bullies all their lives, and growing older doesn't necessarily change them, she said.

"Some people do grow out of that, but some people don't," Gerstenecker said. "That's the sad part."

Senior-to-senior bullying sometimes goes beyond verbal attacks, she said. It can include physical acts such as shoving or stealing and socially isolating behavior such as shunning in the dining room.

"It's about having power, and it's usually intentionally harmful. It's purposeful," she said. "It's not normal conflict between people."

Pat Babich-Smith, manager of counseling and advocacy for the Senior Resource Center at Family Service of Champaign County, said she has heard of bullying behavior at local senior-residence facilities from agency clients. In some buildings, she said, there will be a clique sitting in a lobby critiquing people walking in.

"It's reminiscent of high school," she said.

In one case, Babich-Smith said, a Jewish woman at one building was being harassed verbally and otherwise by other-faith residents.

"Usually, it's verbal," said Butler, who is also a former caseworker for the Senior Resource Center. "But you get these little cliques, the women will band together, and they will pick people out."

At one time, verbal bullying reached a point that some black residents would wait until evening to come downstairs and check their mail, Butler said.

These days at Round Barn Manor, "it's not so bad," she said.

Some bullies there have moved on, Butler said. Plus, the management took action. There's a good-neighbor clause in leases requiring respectful behavior toward fellow residents, and three lease violations can result in eviction, she said.

Gerstenecker encourages targets of bullies to use assertive communication if they can, to find their own support systems and reach out to people who can help them. And because not every victim feels empowered enough to stand up to bullies, she also encourages witnesses to speak up.

Butler said she'll ask bullies to consider how they'd feel if they were bullied themselves. She also reinforces the need to show respect for other people.

"We don't need to be friends, but we do need to respect each other," she said.

Learn to spot adult bullying

Older adults, their families and others are invited to a free program next month to learn more about bullying among older adults.

The program will be held from 9 to 10 a.m. Sept. 7 at the UI Extension's office at 801 N. Country Fair Drive, C.

The program will focus on defining senior-to-senior bullying, understanding bullying behavior and the impact of bullying on victims and bystanders.

Registration is requested. Call 217-333-7672 or go to the UI Extension website.