Bullying can affect elderly, too

Story by Jessica D’Amico, Sentinel on
As is the case with any age group, bullying among seniors can have serious consequences for its victims, including problems with eating and sleeping. I t has been said that life comes full circle, and that being elderly can sometimes bear a striking similarity to early childhood. Although this comparison is drawn in reference to the loss of autonomy that often comes with aging, other unpleasant flashbacks from childhood can re-emerge in the golden years — like the terrors of bullying.

“It’s typical of what you would see in a high school or middle school situation,” said Caroline Berdzik, an attorney and partner with Princeton-based Goldberg Segalla. “You see that movie ‘Mean Girls,’ and you have it taking place in these facilities.”

Berdzik, who specializes in long-termcare issues, recently led an educational forum on harassment among seniors for CIS Management Inc., which manages Heritage Village at Elton Corner in Freehold, among other properties. The forum was meant to educate residents and staff members about the emerging issue.

“There hasn’t been much written on this topic, but it’s really a prevalent issue,” she said, adding that a pilot study conducted at Arizona State University revealed that between 10 and 20 percent of seniors are bullied or mistreated by their peers.

“I think, overall, the aging process is difficult to accept … and it provides opportunities for these issues to develop.”

The problems can arise from something as simple as choosing what to watch on television, according to Berdzik. The shared spaces in nursing homes and other longterm care facilities set the stage for such conflicts, especially considering that many residents are accustomed to living on their own.

“It’s a personality thing,” said Red Bank resident Fred Buonanno, 82, who spent 30 years working as a pharmacist in nursing homes. “I think it’s a carry-over from normal life.”

Bullying can escalate quickly, harkening back to school days, with the “cool” kids sitting together at lunch and excluding the target of their disdain.

According to Berdzik, women are statistically more likely to engage in such antisocial bullying, which takes the form of ostracizing, gossiping, ignoring and using negative body language toward an individual. However, more men than women are found to take part in verbal bullying, she said.

Buonanno said sometimes what turns into bullying starts out as individuals being bossy because they’re “just trying to help.”

“They were still trying to be a mother or a father,” he said, adding that this type of behavior among seniors may come from feeling that no one listens to them.

Of course, there is also physical bullying, which not only involves altercations between two people, but also issues over property, Berdzik said.

“It’s a little bit of rebellion — rebellion against authority or society,” Buonanno said, adding that bullying behaviors can stem from negative feelings about living in a nursing home or other facility.

No matter what form the harassment takes, it takes a toll. For the victim, the internalized scars of bullying can manifest in a variety of ways, including increased physical complaints, ailments, withdrawal, sleeping problems and appetite changes, according to Berdzik.

Reporting is crucial

These symptoms make reporting the bullying all the more important. Berdzik noted that CIS rightfully encourages its residents to report any bullying incidents to staff or management.

Residents of nursing homes and assistedliving facilities in New Jersey are protected by a Bill of Rights under the law.

“They have a right to be free from harassment,” Berdzik said.

James McCracken, New Jersey’s ombudsman for the institutionalized elderly, works to protect that right.

“We always advocate on behalf of the residents to make sure their civil and human rights are respected,” he said. “If anyone suspects abuse, neglect or exploitation of any type among persons over 60 years of age … they should absolutely get in touch with us.”

Although every one of the growing number of cases reported to McCracken’s office is different, he and his staff do everything possible to prevent the recurrence of such incidents, he said.

“We work to the best of our ability to ensure that the situation has been resolved,” McCracken said. But sometimes getting patients to spill the beans on what’s happening is half the battle.

“Statistically, it shows that women and men are equally involved, but men are less likely to report [bullying],” Berdzik said, adding that another deterrent to reporting bullying is that a resident is new to a facility and doesn’t want to “ruffle any feathers.”

Her presentation at Heritage Village helped emphasize to residents the importance of telling someone.

“They found it was very helpful, and they thought it was good in getting a dialogue started,” she said.

Those in charge at the Francis E. Parker Memorial Home, a company offering longterm care services for seniors at facilities in Highland Park, New Brunswick and Piscataway, with another planned for Monroe, said it’s all about fostering the right type of environment.

“Our culture at Parker has built a lot of support systems into our environment,” said Carol Burt, chief administrator at Parker Homes.

Marcy Salzberg, director of social services and resident family liaison for Parker Homes, educates residents on how to respect the dignity of others, she said.

“It’s important … for patients to feel good and safe,” she said.

Employees, from care providers to housekeepers, dining room servers and maintenance staff, are trained on the types of behaviors to watch for in keeping residents free from bullying.

“The other important piece is, we train [residents] … to tell somebody,” Salzberg said. “So they’re empowered in that way.”

According to Burt, sometimes a resident tells a friend, who then reports the issue to staff. Other times, family members intervene.

“Sometimes it stretches beyond the resident on-resident contact,” Berdzik said, adding that relatives of warring factions can end up in a battle of their own.

“Sometimes these folks may not have family members to advocate for them,” she added.

Perhaps most important in encouraging residents to speak out, according to Salzberg, is letting them know there will be quick resolution.

“There’s always an action,” she said. “They know we’re going to take care of it.”

The role of dementia

“I suspect, anecdotally, that probably we’re seeing more of these issues because we’re seeing more and more people in longterm care facilities with behavioral health issues or with dementia,” McCracken said.

He cited the Olmstead Act, which in 1999 mandated a move away from institutionalization for persons with mental illness, instead aiming to integrate them into the community.

When McCracken’s office receives a bullying or abuse complaint, along with other interventions, he and others make those involved aware of the Statewide Clinical Outreach Program for the Elderly (SCOPE), a program managed by the state Division of Mental Health and Addiction Services under Trinitas Hospital in Elizabeth. The program, created by Gov. Chris Christie’s administration, is centered on ensuring that those age 55 and older who are at risk of being placed in a psychiatric hospital are receiving the care they need to help them stay within a community setting.

Dementia can play a sizable role in senior bullying. The vulnerability of those with dementia makes them more likely to fall prey to a bully, according to McCracken.

The condition can contribute to the other end of bullying as well, Salzberg said.

“Your ability to realize, ‘That’s not a nice thing to say; I shouldn’t say that,’ is gone,” she said, adding that such problems are dealt with by redirecting the individual with dementia.

According to Buonanno, the oftenoverlooked mental effects of Parkinson’s disease can also contribute to bullying behaviors.

Parker Homes provides education on dementia and managing behaviors, according to Burt.

Margaret Fourounjian, senior manager of marketing and community relations for Parker Homes, said the staff is always evaluating residents’ needs, and sometimes individuals are moved to another facility that is better equipped for them.

A proactive stance

At Parker Homes, Salzberg is starting a mentoring program to make new residents more comfortable. Resident mentors will receive training from staff on how to introduce new residents to the community.

“One of the most difficult things for residents is when they first move into an assisted living community,” she said. “It’s not only important that they get support from the staff, but it’s also important from the residents.”

The initiative is aimed at enhancing the already inclusive nature of the facilities, Fourounjian said. Salzberg added that the program will likely be as beneficial to the mentors as it is to the new residents.

“Meaning and purpose in their life is very important, especially at this time,” Salzberg said.

According to Berdzik, it is important for facilities to make residents understand that they don’t have to put up with bullying. Along with encouraging them to speak out about it, residents should be educated on how to handle such situations, as well as what does not constitute bullying, she said.

“Obviously, it’s not a one-size-fits-all solution,” she said. “But I think an overall strategy or policy is something that is definitely advisable.”

Filing a complaint

Anyone seeking to lodge a complaint regarding a nursing home or long-term care facility resident who is age 60 or older and is being abused, neglected or bullied may contact the New Jersey Office of the Ombudsman for the Institutionalized Elderly. Cases will be investigated and resolved or referred to the appropriate agency.

Callers may remain anonymous, and the office’s case files are, by law, closed to the public. The office operates a 24-hour complaint hotline at 877-582-6995. The office can be reached by email at ombudsman@advocate.state.nj.us or by mail at the Office of the Ombudsman, P.O. Box 852, Trenton, NJ 08625-3479.
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