Tim R. Johnston, Director of National Projects, SAGE
We all need to be part of community. Whether that community is rooted in our geographic area, certain interests, friendship, or something more formal like a senior center or assisted living community, human beings crave connection and interaction across the lifespan.
While much of the push to create community focuses on the positive effects such as mutual support, collaboration, and fun — being in community also requires navigating tension, different personalities and desires, and at times hostility or hurtful behavior. No two people will get along all of the time, and part of creating community is forming social bonds flexible enough to handle and heal the hurts, tensions, bumps and bruises as they occur.
Sometimes these tensions can take the form of bullying. People outside of the aging network are often surprised to learn that senior centers, congregate meal sites, and senior living communities face the same forms of bullying we see in elementary schools. Cafeteria dynamics, gossiping, physical intimidation, cliques, and cyberbullying are a part of life in community settings, and we need to be sure we see and respond to this bullying as it happens.
There is no one definition of bullying, but many researchers and activists consider a behavior to be bulling if it satisfies three criteria: it is an intention harm, committed by a person with more power than the target of the bullying, and there is the threat of future harm.
In my capacity running the SAGECare LGBT cultural competency training program, I am often called upon to consult on cases where a person is being bullied because they are lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender. Cases such as that of Marsha Wetzel show the horrible treatment faced by some LGBT older adults who come out (or whose LGBT identity is disclosed without their permission) in their communities. The LGBT community has made significant advances politically and culturally, but many LGBT older adults fear mistreatment or abuse and go back into the closet because they do not trust that their neighbors or the staff will support them in being out.
While LGBT people do face real and disproportional levels of bullying and bias — bullying can happen for any reason, from race to religion, personality type to the quality of your clothing. What can we do to make sure that all members of our communities can live without the threat of bullying, while also remembering that marginalized populations often face more bullying and bias?
Researchers like Dr. Robin Bonifas are starting to write books and materials specifically addressing bullying between older people. There is no one-size-fits-all solution, but a combination of training, culture change, policies, and empowerment techniques can help to prevent and resolve bullying in senior communities. Together we can do the hard work to build a world where we are all treated with dignity and respect.