Bullying. For many, the word conjures thoughts or memories of an older schoolmate pushing them down and calling them names on the playground or in school halls. For an increasing number, the word means intimidation by a caregiver or group of peers in an assisted living facility.
Statistics from Missouri’s Department of Health and Senior Services in 2011 show reports of people age 60 and older being abused increased 23.8 percent between 2007 and 2011 with a total of 17,571 reports made in 2011. The department said an increased number of baby boomers reaching retirement age, economic stressors from the recent recession, and increased awareness of elderly abuse issues and how to report them are factors in the increase.
“Several times per year there are incidents investigated by Missouri Health and Senior Services. Reports are made through (the statewide toll-free) hotline,” Michelle Brown, manager of health, advocacy and supportive services for Mid-America Regional Council, the area’s center for aging, said. “It’s still such an under-discussed area where it’s not talked about a lot and people don’t think it could happen to them.”
Clay County Senior Services Executive Director Tina Uridge said the senior adult population is growing.
“The number of older adults is on the rise because people are living longer with chronic disease. This can lead to caregiver stress or stress on those around them,” Uridge said.
Experts say senior bullying can occur in one or more of the following ways: physical, mental or emotional abuse by a peer or caregiver; physical, emotional or mental abuse of a caregiver by a senior; and financial exploitation of a senior.
“Most bullying among seniors is a form of social aggression. That can be gossip, rumor spreading, undermining relationships and territorial behaviors like turning public space into private-use or controlled spaces,” Deborah Babbitt, licensed master social worker and bullying expert at Northland Shepherd’s Center, said.
Same behavior, different playground
Whether in an independent or assisted living facility, senior citizens can bully their peers as easily as a child can bully another child, Babbitt said.
“I’ve seen many issues at different places over the years. We had one instance where it had become such a problem a group facilitator didn’t know what to do. Bullies are intimidating, and we are taught to be respectful of our elders, so it’s harder to address bad behavior in older adults. Adult-on-adult bullying is just as impactful as children bullying other children.”
While people talk about childhood bullying, they do not talk as much about senior bullying, making it a serious issue, Babbitt said.
“Bullying is bullying throughout the lifespan. Throughout life our personalities don’t tend to change. If you were a bully when you were younger, then you are likely to be a bully as an adult,” Uridge said.
“It’s the same behavior, just a different playground,” she said.
“There are residential facilities where seniors are living independently but in a communal space with similarly aged adults. That can be independent or apartment living. Then, there is assisted living, where a person may need help doing daily things or getting around, and there is nursing and long-term care facilities, where people are given more help with personal care like hygiene and other functions of life,” Babbitt said.
Instances of bullying in assisted living facilities, while they do occur, are not as common because staff are trained to spot bullying and legally bound to report cases of abuse, she said.
“Abuse in care facilities is not as common as it used to be because there are so many watchdogs and reporting procedures in place now,” said Steve McDonald of Westbrook Care Center in Kearney, adding that seniors living alone are underrepresented in reports of bullying or abuse.
“With home-bound adults it’s harder because we don’t see those individuals,” Brown said.
Seniors living alone, in a long-term care facility or with a non-relative are at a slightly higher risk for abuse or neglect, according to the 2011 state report.
Living in a group arrangement tends to make situations stressful, creating a higher probability of bullying instances, Babbitt said.
“Not since college have many of these individuals lived in that communal living situation. With that, you have people moving into smaller spaces giving up property, autonomy and control. As people age and experience losses — whether tangible or otherwise — they lose independence and control over self which can spur bullying behavior in some people,” she said.
Most reports of senior bullying are complaints of verbal abuse or social aggression in residential facilities where older adults are living independently or in apartment-style arrangements with fellow seniors, Babbitt said.
“Elder-on-elder buying, not unlike child-on-child, occurs from a dynamic of behavior. There is the bully, the target and the witnesses. The bully is someone who does something to exert control over a target. It can be obvious, like a threat, or obscure, like undermining a relationship. An example of that is a someone who sees you engaging with another and then says something like, ‘Wow, she really gave you a funny look. What’s that about?’” Babbitt said.
The target, Babbitt said, is “exactly that. It is the target of the bullying. The person on the receiving end of the abuse.”
After repeated instances of bullying, targets may practice isolation, Babbitt said.
“They drop out of groups, have increased instances of depression or anxiety. They tend to make comments excusing themselves from activities with others. They often don’t feel empowered to or are reluctant to tell others about the bullying behavior,” she said.
How impacted by bullying behavior a target is depends on the length of and severity of bullying he or she has experienced, Babbitt said.
“It goes from being mildly annoyed to deeply affected emotionally or mentally,” she said. “I had an instance once where a woman tried to commit suicide because bullying had undermined a relationship with her sister.”
Witnesses, Babbitt said, are also important in the dynamic of bullying.
“Witnesses are also impacted. They can experience vicarious trauma or guilt. They either contribute by being a silent audience — oftentimes that fuels the bully because they feed off that attention — or by not acting. By not acting, you are supporting the bully,” she said. “Witnesses often don’t act out of fear. They think, ‘I don’t want to be the next target,’ so it’s a protective measure.”
Caregiver bullying can occur when a senior abuses a caregiver or vice versa, Babbitt said.
“Caregiver bullying is when the caregiver, which can be a family member or a paid care provider, or the senior him or herself, have some sort of control or power over the other person.”
Seniors can abuse their caregivers by guilt.
“If it is a relative caring for a senior, the senior may enact guilt to get his or her way. They may make their relative feel bad to get what they want,” Babbitt said.
Abuse of seniors at the hands of relative caregivers can be the result of family stress, Uridge said.
“You have situations where people are working full-time jobs and may have children of their own they need to care for, and then you bring an aging parent or relative in the mix and it adds stress, causing people to lash out,” she said.
Lashing out, experts say, can be physical, emotional or mental.
The National Center on Elder Abuse, under the federal Administration on Aging’s website, lists physical abuse warning signs: bruises, pressure marks, broken bones, burns, unexplained withdrawal from normal activities, strained or tense relationships, bedsores, unexplained medical needs and poor hygiene.
Stealing from seniors or by seniors is also a form of caregiver bullying.
“It can be property or medicine,” Kearney Police Chief Tom Carey said.
Babbitt said it was another way to exert control.
State findings show reports of abuse of the elderly and adults with disabilities rose between 2007 and 2011. In 2011, state investigations show 10 percent of home- and community-based incidents were those with adults in imminent danger, indicating a high risk of injury or were life-threatening, and 78 percent of were people were involved in situations that may result in harm being done to the adult but were not life-threatening.
State findings show the most commonly reported claim to Missouri’s abuse and neglect hotline for adults with disabilities and the elderly is physical neglect either by a caregiver or self.
Hotline reports state alleged perpetrators are most likely caregivers related to the victim.
“The vast majority of abusers were family members (approximately 90 percent), most often adult children, spouses, partners and others,” a 1998 National Center on Elder Abuse study called “The national elder abuse incidence study: Final report” states.
Some experts say financial abuse of seniors is a form of bullying, some say it’s exploitation. But all agree, instances are on the rise.
“Gladstone (police) said the biggest issue of calls they get from seniors is related to scams,” Uridge said.
McDonald said the uptick in scams is tied to the economy.
“Because of the economic downturn, there are more instances of people needing money and it has created a big issue among seniors,” McDonald said.
In recent years, Carey said his department has received many calls about people attempting to or successfully getting money from seniors.
“There is one where someone calls the senior and poses as the person’s grandchild. They will say, ‘Don’t call my parents, but I am in trouble,’ and they are in jail so they need $4,500 wired to them. They give a number for the (police department) where they are and it’s a false number,” he said. “We had three people fall for that and got several calls about others attempting it. One who fell for it was a friend of mine.”
Another scam, Carey said, involves receiving a check in the mail.
“They will get a check for, say, $4,000 and it says they just need to send $300 of it back and they can keep the rest. Most of those scams come from out of the country. Usually, the person who gets the check wires the money and then goes and spends their large check, and then they get a call from the bank saying it was a fake check and they are out that money”
A Nigerian scam is also one that has proved successful, Carey said.
“That is where someone calls and says if you give them $1,000 they can turn it into $1 million. Those used to come in from Nigeria all the time,” he said.
A less popular, but more convincing scam, comes from door-to-door salesmen.
“We had one where a guy was going around telling people they needed termite control. They would get into the people’s homes and spray some cheap chemicals around and then charge the people hundreds or thousands for it,” he said. “You also have one where someone comes to the door saying they are selling vacuums or whatever door-to-door and asks if they can come in and use the bathroom, and then after they leave, people find they have jewelry and medicine or a checkbook missing.”
While reporting bullying or abuse helps, sometimes it comes too late and is only one part of the solution. Prevention is the other part.
“Prevention is key but is hard because bullies don’t often see themselves as bullies. They see themselves as victims, which is how they explain their behavior,” Babbitt said.
Preventing or ending bullying behavior begins with acknowledgment, Babbitt said.
“When witnesses see bullying behavior, they need to say something” she said. “The majority needs to stand up for the minority and address bullying when it happens. … When others stand up and say, ‘This isn’t right. What you are doing is bullying and it won’t be tolerated,’ it takes away the power of the bully. Through the group, bullying can be reduced.”