By Paul Votto, National Director of Housing Programs
About three months ago I got an email out of the blue from a resident of a senior housing community. Susan (not her real name) explained that after a long professional career she had been stricken by a life-threatening disease which eventually drained her financial resources and landed her in an affordable senior community. Remarkably, she wasn’t complaining about that. Her issue was that she was the target of a bully in the building and, according to her, management had turned a blind eye despite her repeated attempts to bring the problem to its attention. Susan said the situation had been going on for more than two years and that she didn't know where else to turn. She spoke about how alone she felt – not in a way that was intended to evoke pity, but more in the sense of “why is this allowed to happen?” Susan said she had stumbled across an article I had written on the subject and wondered if I had any advice.
Let me back up a bit: Since the fall of 2013, when I first stumbled upon the issue of bullying in senior housing, nearly 1,000 people have attended one of my webinars on the subject or participated in our Certified Manager of Senior Housing program. I’ve read countless articles on bullying, discussed it with hundreds of people both inside and outside the housing industry, designed and run simulated bullying experiences in the classroom, and otherwise done my best to get at the scope and nature of the problem – and, more importantly, to understand how management can best address it.
Now, I’ve been in and around property management for more than 35 years – much of that time on the “side” of the landlord. Trust me, after that many years I’ve developed a pretty good nose for whether I’m getting the straight skinny or not from a resident. It didn't take me long to conclude that Susan wasn't just some complainer. She had a real issue and a legitimate complaint. I shared with her my thoughts – the need to do her best to engage management, the fact that in my experience the vast majority of managers and management companies want to do a good job, her need to document incidences, reach out to others for help, etc. etc. Susan responded with more details about what she had already tried to do without success and what she planned to do to continue her fight. She asked if she could attend one of my seminars on bullying and offered to pay for it personally. Since we didn't have a “live” webinar planned any time soon, we arranged for her to have immediate access to a recorded version at no cost.
Over the course of the past three months Susan has kept me informed of her efforts to prod management into taking action (so far to no avail), to reach out to other local resources (where, thankfully, she is finding assistance and support), and to take a more proactive stance against the bully – not just for her own sake but for the good of the resident community in her building.
In one of her recent emails Susan said she had decided to “... work with a [local service group, which I will leave unnamed] that is developing a plan to educate both providers and tenants of senior housing on this issue.” She went on to say that “ ... perhaps something good can come out of my experience after all!”
It already has, Susan.
Susan’s struggle and, more importantly her constructive attitude, is shared by many managers of senior communities – some of whom have been, and continue to be, targets of bullying themselves. We don’t need to hype the problem of bullying in senior housing, but neither should we sweep it under the rug. It happens. We didn't cause the problem but we can either help to address it in our communities or stick our heads in the sand. Thankfully, most of us will do the former and we can only hope that the Susans of the world will constructively fight back against the latter.