Monday, August 3, 2020

Staff Bullies in Older Adult Senior Living Communities: Anti-Bullying Culture

By Frances Shani Parker

The American Psychological Association defines bullying as aggressive physical contact, words or actions to cause another person injury or discomfort. When bullying becomes embedded in the culture of a senior living community, it can include staff members bullying residents as well as residents bullying other residents. One out of five seniors is bullied by peers. Bullied seniors are hurt through feelings of sadness and fear, along with difficulties conducting everyday activities. This post focuses on staff bullies.

An eldercare consultant, I am familiar with numerous senior resident stories related to bullying, including my own. This story involves two residents who were discussing how housekeepers do their jobs. One said she timed her housekeeper and discovered the housekeeper was cleaning her apartment in only seven minutes, which she felt was too short a time. The other resident agreed and asked if she had reported this to the housekeeping supervisor. The complaining senior responded, “No, I didn’t report it. When you report some of these workers, they get back at you by punishing you for telling on them. I had that happen to me before. It's too stressful.” 

In other bullying scenarios, residents may silently tolerate repeated and sometimes deliberate incidents of being served cold food, late food, no food, and even damaged food, such as this badly butchered birthday cake that was rudely presented to a resident on her birthday by a staff member. Although the cake incident was reported to the head administrator who was aware of multiple bullying incidents by that staff member toward the resident, no disciplinary action was ever taken in any of the incidents. Ignored directives to a bully to stay away from a resident are not corrective discipline. They are further examples of continued poor leadership harming residents.

Physical neglect and abuse in caregiving are other issues. This is life for too many residents where staff bullying has become the norm in the culture of the community.

Bullying behavior is encouraged when building administrators are remiss in managing employees. Administrators must be proactive in management if they are serious about solving bullying problems and general work conditions in their communities. They should be familiar with workers' union contract agreements. Addressing sporadic bullying incidents without the context of a larger anti-bullying plan or even a basic employee progressive, corrective discipline plan usually fails.  Problems are rarely solved when administrators mainly resort to repeated unproductive conversations where bullies lie or convince them that they will change and don't. Bullies who receive no negative consequences from their wrongdoing have little or no incentive to stop and even more reasons to take pride in their manipulative skills over lax administrators. Unfortunately, residents are reminded too often that their needs are not a high priority, and the bullying continues.

When administrative assistance is not forthcoming, victims of staff and resident bullying should seek support from families and friends. 
An ombudsperson, who is an official public advocate, can give free advice or directly address residents' complaints that are not being handled well in senior communities. Residents can
document evidence with written descriptions and photos to send to appropriate agencies with their complaints. Under the Fair Housing Act, a landlord can be held liable for not protecting tenants from known forms of bullying. Legal options are available for civil rights violations. Within a bullying culture, the numbers of confrontations initiated by staff members toward residents are often much higher than suspected because of residents' reluctance to complain. While residents continue to suffer, administrators remain complacently unaware.  It would be easy to say it's all the residents' fault for not complaining more. But with a vulnerable population living in a culture of bullying, is it really?

More and more senior communities are making anti-bullying changes. The Internet, numerous senior organizations such as AARP, senior publications, books, videos, and anti-bullying workshops for senior communities can provide significantly helpful information regarding the creation of 
an anti-bullying culture. 
A formal anti-bullying policy driven by the administration with staff and resident input is included in a community handbook, so everyone shares common goals and references. Postings of "Bully-Free Zone" or "No Reserved Seating" in their buildings remind residents and visitors that everyone's rights are respected. Bullies in power at the expense of residents’ healthy quality of life, especially during a painful pandemic, disrupt the primary purpose of senior living communities where home should be a good feeling, not just a place to live.

You can view more helpful information including research and a video on senior bullying at my blog post titled "Older Adult Senior Bullying: No Home Sweet Home."

Frances Shani Parker, Author
Becoming Dead Right: A Hospice Volunteer in Urban Nursing Homes is available in paperback and e-book editions in America and other countries at online and offline booksellers.
Frances Shani Parker's Website


  1. This information is right on point. I see a lot of bullying also forced upon my older peers. It's so sad to witness. You presented your article with much passion and insight. I think talking about it more is really important. Thanks for sharing this with me.

    --Mildred Williams--

    1. Mildred, thanks for sharing your comments regarding this important topic. Our senior peers need and deserve our support. Be love(d).