Handling Bullies in Senior Living Communities

Senior Women Playing Board Game
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Bullying in senior living communities happens. Many times, those mean girls who teased others about their hair, their clothing, and more in elementary school didn’t change, they just got older. The bully boys who stole lunch money have found a new way to intimidate. We all see it and we all know it is going on. We try, and often fail, to fix it, and remain helpless and frustrated, comparing senior living to being in middle school or high school.

What we can do to combat bullies in senior living? 

Sherry Barzak, ACC, President of the Pennsylvania Activity Professionals Association and Vice President of the National Certification Council of Activity Professionals, is fighting back by teaching activity directors and certified therapeutic recreational directors how to calm the hostilities in their buildings.

What Is Bullying Behavior?

According to the U.S. Department of Justice, bullying behavior might include things like tripping, rumor spreading, intimidation, and isolation. Bullies may also destruct property or steal valued possessions. 

According to Barzak, this is an important topic in the elderly communities because facilities must keep the residents safe physically, emotionally, and psychologically. Bullying is considered abuse and, according to the Arizona Geriatrics Society, can be verbal (name calling, teasing, insults, taunts, threats, sarcasm, or pointed jokes targeting an individual), physical (pushing, hitting, stealing or destroying property), or anti-social (excluding people, gossiping, mimicking).

Activity professionals see it every day. It’s residents refusing to let another resident sit with their group at crafts, whispering comments about a resident as they walk past in the hallway, and belittling any suggestion a resident offers at resident council. Some resident bullying gets physical, such as throwing empty cups across a room or threatening to hit another resident with a cane.

Who Are the Bullying Victims?

Barzak notes that the victims are those that may be highly emotional, have difficulty reading social cues, may be shy and insecure, may experience anxiety, and may have early stage dementia or racial/ethnic, spiritual, or sexual orientation perceived as different. They can often be annoying or irritating to others, quick tempered, and intrusive to others space.

Signs of those who may be bullied include self-isolation, including avoidance of specific areas and taking long circuitous routes to get to and from communal areas. They may often complain, ‘they don’t like me’, and experience a depressed mood.

Who Are the Bullies?

You can probably name ones in your own community. Their personality traits are usually similar: they may seek to control others, they want to be powerful and controlling, they make others feel fearful, they may cause and observe conflict between people, and they lack empathy and have difficulty tolerating people who are different than them. They often have few positive social relationship and may intimidate staff. They often tell others what to do using a bossy style, then criticize others and make repeated complaints about others.

How Staff Can Tackle the Bullying Problem

To tackle the problem you must inform the families, Barzak says.

Explain to them the behaviors you are seeing and tell them how you are dealing with the situation. Explain the policies and procedures.

Staff must do more to eliminate bullying and make all residents comfortable in their home. Barzak notes that staff should create a sense of trust and openness and encourage participants to speak and listen to each other. Policies and procedures need to be developed that guide behavior and encourage the reporting of bullying incidents.

For group activities, for example, one of the best solutions is to create a room culture.

For example, for bingo night in the dining room, Barzak  says, residents and staff can came up with rules for the room and clearly communicate them to the residents.


  • Everyone can sit where they want.
  • Everyone has a right to come into the room.
  • Treat one another like you like to be treated.

For culture in the hallway:

  • Everyone may travel the hall when they choose.
  • Treat one another like you like to be treated.

If people do not follow the rules, the staff must approach them immediately. By staff, Barzak means all facility staff. If they continue, they may be asked to leave the room. All of this, of course, should be documented in the residents progress notes.

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