Senior Bullying: Old Behavior in a Different Playground

More than two-dozen members of the Aging and Mental Health Coalition of Kansas City North heard a dramatic discussion of bullying among older adults at their Jan. 23 meeting. Deborah Babbit, benefits and health care coordinator for Shepherd’s Center of the Northland, surprised many of the caregivers and professionals with her accounts of bullying among older adults, including at least one that resulted in a suicide attempt. “It can be devastating,” she said. “Many times the target simply withdraws, which itself is tragic.” Babbit stressed that bullying occurs in almost any setting and older adults are no different than children on a schoolyard or people in a workplace. “In any setting, there is always someone who wants everything their way and has very little empathy,” she said. “Even with children, where an adult has power over them, it’s hard to be bully-free. With adults who have practiced a behavior all of their lives, there is often very little that we can do.” Identification may be difficult. “Many who have moved into a nursing home or a living facility are feeling a loss, mourning for their home and other aspects of their lives,” Babbit noted. “They’re also learning how to live with people in a way they may not have for a long time.” Medical and emotional issues are also a factor. Among older adults, many are grieving, have a mental illness or dementia that can cause temporary aggressive behavior. “That’s not bullying,” she said. “True bullying is intentional, repetitive and involves a balance of power. Bullying almost always involves an underlying need for control.” Some of the symptoms may be hard to identify as well. With older adults, bullying may take the form of gossip, shunning, loud criticism or other behaviors that can be hard to identify. “That’s the situation a lot of our seniors are in,” Babbit said. “The target can be at a loss to defend themselves or even explain the bullying. Many just withdraw.” Babbit said the best option is to create a caring community. If a significant culture change is needed at a home or other facility, the managers or association may need to be involved. She also suggested occasional, confidential interviews with residents to learn better what’s going on. “Don’t oppose bullies with aggressive behavior in return,” she concluded. “If you’re a witness, support the target. Ask the bully to stop. If they’re violent, report them. Sometimes you have to be pretty creative.” For more information, contact Tri-County Mental Health Services at 816-468-0481 or visit

(caption) Deborah Babbit addressed more than 20 caregivers and relatives of older adults on the topic of bullying Jan. 23 at Tri-County Mental Health Services. The meeting of the Aging and Mental Health Coalition of Kansas City North focused on this widespread but often unseen issue among area older adults.

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