Q: My grandmother lives in assisted living and says a woman resident there bullies her! What can I do to help?

A: Bullying is surprisingly common among seniors.  Psychology Today defines bullying as, “a distinctive pattern of deliberately harming and humiliating others.” When we think about bullying, school-aged kids and lunch money extortion may come to mind. But bullying can (and does) happen in many environments and social circles and can occur in any age group.

Elder Care Consultant Frances Parker uses an example from an assisted living setting: “Older adults saving preferred seats in a dining room for their friends ensures that the ‘new people’ are stuck with the less desirable, left over seating and feeling isolated.”  Examples of bullying behavior in older adults (in and out of senior living communities) may include criticizing, ridiculing or making jokes about another person, lying or gossiping about a peer, invading a person’s space, or offensive gestures and facial expressions. At the extreme end, bullies can dole out verbal or physical abuse, like yelling, pushing or kicking, stealing or destroying another’s property.

Older adults often grapple with a loss of independence, chronic health conditions and a variety of life changes, which can leave them feeling vulnerable. Senior communities that don’t actively promote good conduct among residents can create a thriving environment for a bully.

When explaining why bullying occurs in seniors, Pennsylvania’s former Secretary of Aging, Dr. Linda Rhodes notes that “…elder bullies might have exhibited this behavior during their lifetime. Aging factors such as loss of relationships, valued roles and feeling powerless…can exacerbate the need to exert control and ignite a late-life round of bullying behavior.”

It is a step in the right direction that your grandmother has reported her feelings to you. What can she and others do to cope with the bullies in their lives and effect positive change?

Dr. Rhodes suggests a number of strategies:

  • Ignore the behavior, which may remove the bully’s perceived power
  • Share your feelings with the bully, without being aggressive or hostile
  • Maintain eye contact and avoid provoking the bully
  • Try to understand the circumstances contributing to the bully’s behavior
  • Set boundaries and report behavior to a loved one or a trusted individual able to intervene.

Lack of sleep, chronic pain and depression can make even the loveliest people cranky. Before labeling the senior bully, consider that they just may be having a bad day. But if the behavior persists (and avoidance/ignoring them is not an option), take the necessary action.


One Senior Place is a marketplace for resources and provider of information, advice, care and on-site services for seniors and their families. Questions for this column are answered by professionals in nursing, social work, care management and in-home care. Send questions to, call 321-751-6771 or visit One Senior Place, The Experts in Aging.

Lisa Conway is a Registered Nurse and a Certified Care Manager for Senior Partner Care Services, Viera.