How to create a healthy residential community

Pear tree in bloom

Impact of bullying on elderly and disabled

Bullying is a contagious social disease that flourishes in the absence of a legitimate social order, creates a toxic environment and an unhealthy community life, all while causing psychological and physical harm to victims.

About one quarter of elderly people living independently are the victims of bullying. Bullying targets elderly and disabled people, including those living in public or subsidized multifamily apartment housing, but it is also a problem in many upscale residential settings.

Maureen Duffy and Len Sperry (1) have found that mobbing, an extreme form of bullying, can take place in every type of community group. They note that some 50 million people in the U.S. live under condominium or homeowners associations, and relationships in the governance of these associations can be intense and bitter.

Bullying in the residential community restricts a victim’s rights as a tenant and citizen and is therefore a civil rights and human rights violation. Bullying has a terrible impact on victims, causing stress, emotional pain, mental disease, and physical disease. Bullying is bad for the institution as well as for everyone in the institution—the housing provider, bystanders, staff, service providers, and also for the perpetrators—those who bully.

Bullying is harmful

Bullying is a particularly acute problem in multifamily subsidized housing—it cries out for remedy. The impact of bullying in multifamily housing is severe, and adds to the stresses of age and disability. We are all living with loss, and surrounded by people who visibly slow down, waste away, wither, and die, reminding each of us of mortality. We live with the loss of a spouse, a pet, a child, of money, of security; of health, mobility, freedom from pain. This creates the fear of new loss, and builds a walled fortress that can imprison as well as protect us. We live a state of siege, knowing that the invaders will break through the wall.

Bullying is a plague that creates a toxic environment, depriving us of the “peaceful enjoyment,” security, and psychological safety that we deserve in our home. Bullying deprives us of our human and civil rights. We experience isolation, exclusion, rejection, malicious gossip, emotional abuse, and even violence. Our lives are consumed by conflict and stress, causing both emotional and physical illness. We live in fear of unfair eviction and the peril of homelessness. Bullying prevents a healthy community life; it is harmful to managers, staff, and visitors, as well as residents.

Understanding bullying

Bullying is an attempt to aggressively control and manage interpersonal relations. While there may well be characteristic personality or behavioral characteristics of some people who use bullying or of some who are targets and victims of bullying, the administrative, social, and cultural context of a residential facility and the surrounding community determines if, and how, bullying will flourish. Bullying in an institution emerges and flourishes in the context of a social, cultural, and administrative system, and cannot be adequately explained by the psychology of perpetrators or victims. Therefore remedies must consider all the stakeholders including those in the wider community as well as housing providers, managers, and those living and working within the facility. An effective remedial and preventive program must be comprehensive and engage the whole residential community and beyond. We can understand bullying through the lenses of public health and social systems. Public health teaches that a disease can spread in a population, and provides methods for monitoring and intervening.

Bullying can be seen as a syndrome, made up of collections of symptoms and findings with many different potential causes; and therefore we may need to identify and remedy more than one of the underlying causes in order to stop bullying. To understand the causes of bullying, we need to understand the institution as a social system, the psychology of individuals, and the nature of groups.

Bullying is a method used by perpetrators to manage and control the social environment in an attempt to create security. While it may create a bubble of security and support for those who bully, it creates a toxic and painful environment for all others who work or live in the facility. And what is even worse, the housing providers and their agents may condone or even use bullying as a means of management and control. When the housing provider and their agents collaborate with residents to control through bullying, it is mobbing. When management and perpetrators work together, the perpetrators explain their actions as helping and protecting management and for the benefit of the “good” people. When management is effectively absent, perpetrators explain their bullying as their reasonable effort to maintain order.

The degree and type of bullying is related to the administrative and managerial style defined by the housing provider or landlord; the ability of residents to have a legitimate voice in the affairs of their residence; and the availability of essential social, psychological, and health support. These factors together largely correlate with, and perhaps determine, the nature of social life in the facility.

The ability of bullying to flourish depends on the social setting. Subsidized multifamily housing brings together unrelated people from diverse social and cultural backgrounds, and mixes elderly individuals with younger persons living with a variety of disabilities. All have experienced significant loss, all are poor, and all are insecure and afraid. In the absence of commonly agreed norms and methods for resolving disputes and maintaining social order, people may seek to control the resulting chaos through banding together and may use inappropriate methods to gain their goals.

Criteria for a healthy community

There are five key elements needed to stop bullying and create a healthy community; these ingredients help to create a polity, a form of governance with accepted norms and rules that are enforced, and with a means to resolve disputes.

  • housing provider and all agents take responsibility, and there is external oversight;
  • there is trained, professional support to help resolve conflict, support the growth of a positive community, and to provide necessary social, psychological, and medical support for all residents;
  • all residents can participate in a democratic, representative tenants’ association through which they negotiate and collaborate with the housing provider;
  • social, educational, and cultural activities organized by residents or by residents and staff help to create a healthy community;
  • what happens in a residential setting is influenced by the relationship to the surrounding community and the dominant values in that community; and by the actions of the local and state elected legislators and officials.

A bullying-free community can flourish as a well-regulated, open environment in which bullying is not allowed to gain a foothold under a positive, caring, collaborative, and comprehensive approach to management. Everyone shares responsibility and no person—housing provider/landlord, manager, staff, resident, visitor, or others either bullies or is bullied.

Let's move forward

This idea needs to be implemented and tested. The best way to move forward is to bring together all the stakeholders in multifamily housing to broaden the basis of the discussion and craft solutions that have the chance to benefit all stakeholders.

(1) Duffy, Maureen and Len Sperry: Mobbing: Causes, Consequences, and Solutions, (Oxford: New York, 2012).

This article is based on a book by Jerry Halberstadt, Stop Bullying: Creating Healthy Communities for the Elderly and Disabled. Copyright 2017 Jerry Halberstadt All rights reserved.