Long-Term Despair: Bullying in Senior Living Facilities

Just as in many other areas of life, verbal and social bullying are a reality in long-term care settings.

Where does the bullying most often happen? Who are the victims? What policies can be put in place to ebb bullying?

A recent thesis, authored by Felicia Jo VandeNest of Minnesota State University, Mankato, dives into these questions.

The author surveyed long-term care facility staff members about the types of bullying, the places where it most occurred (answer: the dining hall) and a battery of other questions.

There are many interesting thoughts in the paper; we pulled out a few snippets.

On several fronts, the survey results align with previous research findings:

It was expected that nursing staff would frequently be exposed to bullying behaviors among the elderly and the findings from the current study suggest that staff members and administrators are well aware of bullying behaviors in senior care facilities. Previous research also suggests that men were more often identified as being the perpetrator and the victim when compared to females (Nansel et al., 2001), which corresponds to the findings of the current study.

There have also been gender differences identified for how perpetrators typically bully others. Particularly, males tend to use more direct forms of bullying, such as verbal insults, whereas females use more indirect or passive aggressive behaviors, such as gossiping and spreading rumors (Bonifas & Frankel, 2012; Zapf, Einarsen, Hoel, & Vartia, 2003). Our findings support this information, as males were most likely to engage in verbal bullying (46%) and females were most likely to engage in social bullying (42%).

On the characteristics of victims:

With regard to the characteristics of victims, our finding suggests that victims were commonly described as having cognitive and physical deficits. Much of this information is consistent with existing information available about senior bullying. For example, the current study also found that cognitive impairments are a common characteristic among victims of bullying. The finding is consistent with anecdotal reports suggesting that cognitive impairments elicit bullying from those who are cognitively intact as those with cognitive impairments may be provocative (e.g., annoying, intrusive) or passive (Bonifas & Frankel, 2012).

The finding that victims were also commonly reported to have physical disabilities and certain personality traits such as being shy, quiet, and submissive are also consistent with previous writings and suggest victims of senior bullying are often noticeably vulnerable, thus may be perceived as easier targets because they are unlikely or unable to defend themselves.

Bullying as it relates to formal policies:

Despite the fact that bulling is commonly observed by staff, results revealed that there are rarely formal policies in place to help staff navigate these situations. Our research indicates that facilities typically have a policy in place for severe verbal (e.g., threats of harm) and physical instances of bullying, and in fact staff are mandated to report these behaviors because they cause direct harm or threaten direct harm to residents. There is less guidance, however, for handling less extreme verbal bullying (e.g., insults, name calling) and social bullying that although less severe in nature, can cause significant stress and psychological harm to residents who experience them.


Based on our results, policies will need to address two issues that pose greater ambiguity for staff. First, policy that addresses more covert and less severe forms of bullying (i.e., social and verbal bullying) would be helpful so there is consistency across staff as to how or when to intervene. Second, policies will need to specify how bullying should be handled differently when it is perpetrated by a cognitively intact individual versus a cognitively impaired resident, as staff may be more unsure as well as less comfortable intervening in these situations.

The full paper can be read here.

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