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Old 02-16-2011, 06:01 PM   #1
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Mean Girls Of The Retirement Homes

Mean old girls: Seniors who bully
Bullying doesn't always end in high school — it also happens in retirement communities


By Diane Mapes
msnbc.com contributor
updated 2/16/2011 8:43:58 AM ET

When Nancy Murphy moved into a retirement community near Portland, Ore., she didn’t realize she’d actually traveled back in time.

“I came into breakfast one morning and this woman sitting at a nearby table sees me and says, ‘Well, would you look at the new girl? She has WET HAIR!’” says Murphy, a 75-year-old retired schoolteacher. “She did this three mornings in a row. Then I found a flyer in my mailbox with a copy of the house dress rules. I know she tucked it in there.”

Murphy, who’s lived at the facility just under two months, says she ignores the woman’s jabs — “I refer to her as Harriet High School” — but others at the nursing home have confided they’re afraid of her.

Fight right -- no yelling

If you've been under each other's skin more than usual (or more than you'd like), it's not necessarily time to panic.

“I had dinner with two gentlemen the other night and they said she terrifies them,” she says. “That she’s dictatorial, demanding, critical — classic bully behavior.”

While much scrutiny and study has been devoted to bullying in grade school and high school these last few years, less attention has been paid to another category of bullies: those with gray hair, false teeth, hearing aids and canes. But according to experts, gray-haired bullies do exist and, as with their younger counterparts, their behavior can run the gamut from verbal intimidation to physical violence.

“It’s kind of an institutional thing,” says gerontology expert Robin Bonifas, an assistant professor at Arizona State University School of Social Work, who’s currently researching senior-to-senior bullying. “It tends to take place in senior centers or nursing homes or assisted living facilities, places where they’re spending a lot of time and need to share resources, whether it’s chairs or tables or TV stations or staff attention.”

Mary Noriega, a 64-year-old from Phoenix, says she has had run-ins with a group of “mean girls” at the senior complex where she and her husband moved a year and a half ago.

“I’ve endured a lot of bullying,” she says. “There’s a clique here of probably 20 women and they feel they control the property. I’m their kicking stone.”

Noriega says the women in the group gossip about her (“One piece of gossip that went around was that we’d been evicted from our last apartment,” she says); spread lies about her; discourage other residents from befriending her and give her dirty looks whenever she tries to use community facilities, like the rec room.

“No one should have to deal with the harassment I’ve endured,” she says. “The first six months I lived here, I used to sit in my apartment and just cry. I’ve never dealt with anybody like this before.”

These days, Noriega is gathering evidence (“I’ve got a briefcase crammed full of information about the harassment I’ve endured”) and is turning to outside agencies like the local city council and ASU's School of Social Work in order to get help for her — and other residents — with the bullying problem.

Age-old problem

This kind of problem is nothing new to Gina Kaurich, an executive director at FirstLight HomeCare, who previously worked as a director of nursing at an assisted living facility outside of Dayton, Ohio, for several years.

“There is, in some regard, a caste system among residents,” Kaurich says. “There would be an elitist type of table in the dining room where you had people who could eat and drink and carry on conversations very well together. And if an individual who had trouble eating tried to sit with them, they would ignore them or say, ‘Why do you always seem to drop your fork?’ They’d speak meanly to them. It was like high school.”
Kaurich says even fun activities like singing weren’t immune from bully behavior.

“In the recreation room, if somebody didn’t participate the way somebody else thought they should, you’d see them get into that person’s face,” she says. “They’d be literally shaking their finger and saying, ‘How dare you call out Bingo when you don’t have a Bingo!’ or ‘How dare you sing that hymn that way!’ Even if the person was in a wheelchair, they’d be looking down at them, shaking their finger in their face.”

Doris Lor, a 76-year-old retired secretary, told the Arizona Republic that when she moved to an age-restricted retirement community in Chandler, Ariz., her new neighbors yelled at her whenever she walked into the recreation center and refused to let her sit at the club’s card tables or community pool.
The bullies were part of a “clique … that is meaner than mean,” she says.

Estimated 10 to 20 percent of seniors bullied

There's little published research on elderly bullying, but Bonifas estimates about 10 to 20 percent of seniors have experienced some type of senior-to-senior aggression in an institutional setting, much of it verbal abuse.
Both men and women can bully, she says, but women tend towards passive-aggressive behavior like gossiping and whispering about people when they enter a room while men are more “in your face”.

“With men, it’s more negative comments directly to the person,” she says “With women, it’s more behind your back.”

But it doesn’t always stop at back-biting and bickering. Seniors have also been the victims of violence, she says, sometimes over something as trivial as a coveted spot at the dinner table.

“At one facility where I worked, there wasn’t assigned seating so residents would tend to claim ownership at certain tables,” she says. “And one time, a woman was sitting at a table having a cup of coffee and another resident came in and saw her seated at ‘his’ table and started yelling at her. She yelled back. And then he hit her — with his fist.”
According to Bonifas, incidents like these are all part of a pattern of behavior.

Dementia and violence

“There’s kind of a continuum to this aggressive behavior,” she says. “Bullying would be on the lower end of the spectrum and at the higher end, you’ll have actual incidents of violence between seniors. They could be hitting each other, kicking each other; there have actually been deaths.”

One such death, in which a male resident of an Indiana nursing home killed a female resident by lifting her up and slamming her into a wall causing a cerebral contusion, was detailed in a 2001 report prepared by the U.S. House of Representatives. According to the report, the man had a “long history of … explosive physical and verbal aggression towards residents and staff.”
In some cases, dementia is responsible for the violence, says Bonifas, causing residents to “perceive things as threatening when they’re not really threatening — so they resort to a more primitive response.”.

Debbie Campbell, 54, says this is exactly what happened to her mom when she stayed at a nursing home several years ago.

“My mom had heart surgery and needed to be in a rehab/nursing home setting for a few weeks and we got her a semi-private room with just one other little old lady,” says Campbell, who owns a creative design firm in Seattle. “The first few nights, Mom would wake up and her roommate would be standing over her staring at her and muttering. But near the end of the first week, she woke up to the woman pounding on her with an umbrella screaming that she was a spy from her family and to ‘Get out!’ So we did.”
Other times, it’s the people with dementia who are picked on, says Kaurich — a situation that can lead to some interesting reversals.

“We had a woman who picked on others — she would berate people for dropping food on their clothes or dropping their fork — and then she began to exhibit signs of dementia,” she says. “She started to forget where she was supposed to sit or eat. And the others in that particular group began to pick on her. It seemed to me, it was almost out of fear that something like that was going to happen to them.”

Causes and strategies

Fear can be one reason for bullying, says Renee Garfinkel, a Washington, D.C.-based psychologist who specializes in aging issues, but it’s also “that human phenomenon of the strong picking on the weak. It’s not a function of aging. It’s a function of pathology.”
There’s also a tendency for people to become more and more uniquely themselves as they age, she says.

“Chances are, if you were kind of a nasty, selfish person throughout your adulthood, you’re probably not going to be the benign grandma type when you’re old,” she says.

How do you stop a senior bully in their tracks?

Garfinkel says just as with bullying anywhere, the best way to prevent it is intervention.

“Third party bystanders are part of the problem,” she says. “If people see this, they should get involved. Go to the staff. Speak up the same way you would if you saw it at a bus stop. Sometimes, people aren’t sure what to do because the bully might be impaired, not functioning on all cylinders. But you need to get somebody to come and help.”

But she also points out that just because people are cranky, it doesn’t necessarily mean they’re a bully.

“People in nursing homes often have painful conditions that wear them out and make them uncomfortable all the time,” she says. “A backache or toothache doesn’t promote the milk of human kindness. And if you’ve ever spent time in a nursing home, it’s hard to be with a lot of the people who are there.”
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Old 02-16-2011, 07:16 PM   #2
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It's not very healthy for humans to spend all their social time with people their own age.
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Old 02-16-2011, 07:47 PM   #3
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I think I'd rather die lonely and alone than in a hell hole retirement home filled with equally depressing people.

Not sure how North America is dealing with old people these days (like still stuffing them into retirement homes), but in the UK the social services, from experience, have been quite good. Have a grandmother in her 80s who still lives alone and gets one or two daily visits form a nurse to check in and provide mental stimulation, gets the 'seinor bus' into town twice a week for shopping and socialization, etc, has an emergency button on her at all times she can press, etc.

How we treat our elders, just as how we treat our poor, is one of the most important reflections of how decent a place to live a country is. At least in my opinion.
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Old 02-17-2011, 12:06 AM   #4
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i'm not surprised to hear about this at all.
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Old 02-17-2011, 09:00 AM   #5
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My mother volunteers at a nursing home and some of the stories are similar, including the people who work there.

I know I shouldn't say this but I really hope I die before I get old-the older I get the more I feel that way.
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Old 02-17-2011, 09:47 AM   #6
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i'm sure there are studies out there somewhere... but this sort of behavior happens everywhere. kids, adults, the elderly... heck, even in the animal kingdom. it's darwinism at work, and i don't know if we'll ever really be able to get it to go away.
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Old 02-17-2011, 09:56 AM   #7
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Bette Davis said it best: Old age isn't for sissies.

I'm not at all surprised by this article. I am surprised, though, that there aren't more reports of elder bullying. I have a friend who works in the lock-down unit of a nursing facility & she, herself, has been physically harmed by one of her patients on a few different occasions. He happens to be known for his anger issues, but it makes me wonder: how many retirement home bullies engage in the behavior because it's one of the last bastions of 'control' they have in their lives & how many do it without realizing, i.e., there are neurological reasons to change them from an easy going, jovial individual to a much less pleasant person?

I do know this: one of my fervent wishes is that I am able to stay in my own home until my death. Institutional living doesn't appeal to me at all. (ETA: not that I really believe anyone wants to live in an assisted facility, but I think you know what I mean.)
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Old 02-17-2011, 03:19 PM   #8
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Originally Posted by Canadiens1131 View Post
Not sure how North America is dealing with old people these days (like still stuffing them into retirement homes), but in the UK the social services, from experience, have been quite good. Have a grandmother in her 80s who still lives alone and gets one or two daily visits form a nurse to check in and provide mental stimulation, gets the 'seinor bus' into town twice a week for shopping and socialization, etc, has an emergency button on her at all times she can press, etc.

How we treat our elders, just as how we treat our poor, is one of the most important reflections of how decent a place to live a country is. At least in my opinion.
Completely agree with you on the last part. The elderly is everybody, basically--we're all headed there someday.

There are home-based social services like you describe in the US, but they're very spotty in terms of funding and staffing. Some areas don't offer them at all, and in others the staffing is both inadequate and plagued with high turnover rates--it might not be a huge problem for your grandmother if a nurse fails to show up one day, but for people worse off mentally or physically, that could be a major crisis, even if they live with a relative.
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Old 02-19-2011, 03:19 PM   #9
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It's not very healthy for humans to spend all their social time with people their own age.
I agree. I chose not to have children, and when I used to post at childfree by choice so many other posters used to say they couldn't wait to get older so they could move to retirement communities that bar younger people. Ugh. Not me. I like being around people of all ages. I live near a large University, and I like the 20-somethings I run into. For the most part they are smart, caring and fun.

And to be quite honest I'm not surprised by the senior citizen "mean girls." Lately, a majority of the rude people I run into are people over the age of 60.
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Old 02-20-2011, 10:51 PM   #10
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“Third party bystanders are part of the problem,” she says. “If people see this, they should get involved. Go to the staff. Speak up the same way you would if you saw it at a bus stop. Sometimes, people aren’t sure what to do because the bully might be impaired, not functioning on all cylinders. But you need to get somebody to come and help.”


Help is needed.
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Old 02-20-2011, 11:01 PM   #11
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Old people don't seem to appreciate the little time that they have left in this planet.

Most people can work efficiently during their lives to have a nice retirement in order to not end up in a "retirement community".
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Old 02-20-2011, 11:12 PM   #12
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Old people don't seem to appreciate the little time that they have left in this planet.

Most people can work efficiently during their lives to have a nice retirement in order to not end up in a "retirement community".


The wake up call here is that we are all growing older every minute.
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Old 02-20-2011, 11:16 PM   #13
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Most people can work efficiently during their lives to have a nice retirement in order to not end up in a "retirement community".
This doesn't exactly make sense.

People end up in nursing care usually because of health issues, not because of a lack of money. Indeed, nursing homes can be quite expensive. I suppose those that work efficiently during their lives will then have funds to pay for the care they'll need as their health deterioriates?
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Old 02-20-2011, 11:44 PM   #14
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You are generalizing the idea that all people end up with health issues as they become older, but there are steps that you can take in your life to prevent or delay the most common health problems that become apparent as your body starts to break down.

The "work" does not necessarily mean money, even though money does play an important part in retirement, it's equally important to be physically, socially, and mentally active to prevent these problems from happening.
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Old 02-20-2011, 11:56 PM   #15
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You are generalizing the idea that all people end up with health issues as they become older, but there are steps that you can take in your life to prevent or delay the most common health problems that become apparent as your body starts to break down.

The "work" does not necessarily mean money, even though money does play an important part in retirement, it's equally important to be physically, socially, and mentally active to prevent these problems from happening.
I see what you mean. I appreciate the clarification.

I don't agree that every person in a nursing home is there through some fault of their own, but I see the point you were trying to make.
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