Moving into an independent living facility with access to a range of services and activities is a big step for older adults. On the checklist priority attention is given to checking the room or unit, grounds and amenities; however, the culture of the village often receives little or no research.
So, the apartment is lovely, the food is good, and there are lots of activities. Why then, do some elderly find themselves more isolated than they were back in their own homes, and sometimes being bullied?
The answer is both simple and complex. When you think about it, villages are communities, and it can be like being back in school; there are the cool kids, the established groups, and the mean girls (or boys). After all, people’s personalities do not necessarily improve or change with age.
When the cool kids won’t let you sit at their table, or when it’s a game where they don’t need another player life can be isolating.
Fifty years may have passed since that first contact with a bully, but suddenly you are back in the schoolyard. The notion that a threat to seniors is among their peers is somewhat new with most outside of village life not aware that it happens.
Surely older adults can get along together? Those lovely old people don’t get bullied, do they?
Indeed, those mean girls from school did grow up, and maybe they were not mean forever. Still, the experience of older adults in villages does suggest otherwise. It says that the cruel are always with us, that mean girls and boys turn into adults and stay mean — they just wear support hose, incontinence pads and dentures.
Studies have shown that aggression among residents in care homes and villages is widespread, with bullying behaviours, high rates of conflict and even violence common. Bad behaviour doesn’t change with age if anything it gets worse.
Whether you’re fighting in the school playground or battling over the best seats for quiz night at the care facility, bad behaviour is a factor. The rituals around trying to make new friends, or to make friends don’t change that much.
In older adults, it’s not looks, power and wealth you are judged on - it’s age. The 80-year-olds stick together, and the 70-year-olds are off in a different group. With any clique, age doesn’t alleviate the feeling of being left out. At nine you felt it, at 90 you still feel it.
So, when families worry about their kids going to school, they equally worry when a parent or grandparent goes into aged care. They worry that their family member is lonely, isolated or feeling cut off and left out. The feelings of isolation when an older person has outlived all their contemporaries, or there is simply no one left to talk to.
Making new friends is hard when you’re a child, it’s equally hard when you’re a older adult. Getting to know the person opposite at dinner who forgets who you are between one meal and the next takes effort. Reaching out, going through acceptance and rejection is hard at any age, but can be particularly debilitating in old age.
In an increasingly market-driven industry, profits matter, but people should always come first. Elder abuse is only one part of the problem as bullying in aged care is present at every level and can come from many different directions.
The bully can be anyone, from staff, carers, residents, patients or even family members and its not just one way.
Staff who want to do the right thing may be held back by intimidating leadership styles. Often, unfortunately, it is these hard-working, front-line employees who bear the brunt of people’s anger. They are the frontline in the current aged care crisis.
The culture of villages, like any community group, needs to be worked at, with a dedicated effort from management, nursing staff, caregivers and residents, mixed in with a healthy pinch of kindness.