How to deal with bullies in senior housing


By Marianne Delorey©

Although we usually think of school-aged kids when we think of bullies and the bullied, there is a fair amount of bullying happening in senior housing. The increasing frailty of some elders is a reason that bullying should be more attended to by elders and their caregivers. Here are some tips about how to deal with senior bullies.

M.Delorey_headshotMost importantly, if you feel physically threatened, walk away and call 911. There is no point in arguing further until the situation can be diffused.

Remember that you are the only person you can control. Regardless what someone says to you, you are responsible for how you react.

Then, focus on the problematic behavior. Decide what you can tolerate. For instance, some people do not mind when others swear, some people find it very offensive. Then communicate your boundaries respectfully, calmly and clearly to the other person.

Some boundaries might include:

•I can’t listen to you when you are yelling. Can you speak more quietly?

•I am walking away until you can speak to me without using that language.

•If you get your finger out of my face I will try to listen more carefully.

•When you roll your eyes at me, it makes me feel belittled.

•I don’t enjoy being near you when you say things like that.

You are not likely to get anywhere if you try to generalize too much. For instance, if you ask a bully, “Why are you always so mean?” He or she will feel attacked and lash back even harder. It is also very easy to ignore a statement using “always” or “never” since very few things are so definitive.

If you are a bystander, consider making it clear that you don’t condone certain behaviors, especially if someone comments about someone’s physical appearance, gender, race, or disability.

•I don’t mean to eavesdrop but you should know that most people find that kind of comment very offensive.

•Please don’t tell jokes like that in front of me. I don’t find that funny.

•That seems unkind and unnecessary.

A bully’s best defense mechanism is to try to deflect the issue back onto the other person or to try to make light of what you find offensive. Consider this conversation:

Bully: Oh, joy, here comes Bertha again. Why does she wear that shirt?

Bertha: I don’t know if you intended me to hear that, but I did. I find that hurtful. Why does this shirt bother you?

Bully: I was just being funny.

Bertha: Really? It sounded like you were trying to put me down. Did anyone here find it funny? No? Neither do I.

It is hard for a bystander to stand up to a bully, but it is equally hard for them to back up a bully. If you involve the crowd by asking them to support the bully and they don’t, the bully has lost their power.

Bullies are awful at any age and they are everywhere. They thrive in social settings like schools, clubs and even workplaces. With any luck, if you take the bully by the horns with the tips above, it may make them more tolerable for our elders.

Marianne Delorey, Ph.D. is the executive director of Colony Retirement Homes. She can be reached at 508-755-0444 or and Archives of articles from previous issues can be read at