When Rhea Basroon’s mother moved into a New Jersey assisted living facility a few years ago, she found a good friend in an new neighbor named Irene. Her daughters, long concerned that their widowed mother had become isolated and depressed, were initially delighted.
“She and Irene were inseparable,” Ms. Basroon told me. “Whenever there was an activity, they’d both go. Whoever got there first saved a seat.” The two even discouraged others from joining them: “It was just her and Irene.”
Then, disaster. Irene was lured away by another resident, abandoning Ms. Basroon’s mother. “She was so lonely. There was no one else she’d bonded with,” Ms. Basroon recalled. “She was completely devastated.”
But wait! The third woman apparently eventually tired of her prize, or perhaps moved on to other prey. “She dumped Irene, and Irene came back to my mother,” Ms. Basroon said. They remained fast friends until Irene’s death several months later.
In senior residences, Ms. Basroon concluded, “it’s like junior high, with that cliquishness, that excluding” of others.
This phenomenon, a sort of social bullying, apparently comes as no surprise to administrators of senior apartments, assisted living facilities, nursing homes and senior centers. “What happens to mean girls? Some of them go on to become mean old ladies,” said Marsha Frankel, clinical director of senior services at Jewish Family and Children’s Services in Boston, who has led workshops (innocuously called “Creating a Caring Community”) for staff and residents.
What sort of behavior are we talking about? Ms. Frankel and Robin Bonifas, an assistant professor of social work at Arizona State who has begun research on senior bullying, described various situations:
Attempts to turn public spaces into private fiefdoms. “There’s a TV lounge meant to be used by everyone, but one person tries to monopolize it — what show is on, whether the blinds are open or shut, who can sit where,” said Dr. Bonifas.
Exclusion. “Dining room issues are ubiquitous,” said Ms. Frankel. When there’s no assigned seating, a resident may loudly announce that she’s saving a seat, even if no one else is expected, to avoid someone she dislikes. In an exercise class, added Ms. Frankel, who has gathered examples from administrators at several Massachusetts facilities, “one resident told another, in a condescending way, that she was doing it all wrong and shouldn’t be allowed to take the class.”
General nastiness. “People loudly and publicly say insulting things. ‘You’re stupid.’ ‘You don’t know what you’re talking about.’” Ms. Frankel said. In a Newton, Mass., facility she observed, a resident actually discouraged her daughter from visiting, because the daughter was obese and her mother didn’t want her subjected to disparaging gossip. Racial and ethnic differences can also set off malicious comments.
Could all this be a consequence of cognitive impairment? Sometimes, Ms. Frankel said. Dementia can lead to disinhibition, and people say things they might once merely have thought.
But social manipulation and exclusion seem to have more to do with acquiring power, a feeling of control, at a point in life when older people can feel powerless. (Adolescence is another of those points, of course.)
“Perhaps people don’t have ways to get that sense of control in healthy ways, so it’s done by dominating others,” said Dr. Bonifas, a former nursing home social worker. “It gives them a sense that they’re important.”
Some intended victims can shrug off this petty tyranny, but others suffer. They withdraw from activities and social situations, perhaps experience anxiety or depression, want to move out. “It can get pretty nasty, and these are vulnerable people,” Ms. Frankel said.
She hasn’t found her caring community workshops very effective at getting mean seniors to behave better, since nobody considers himself or herself a bully, but they do appear to embolden the staff to intervene.
That can make a difference: At a Massachusetts class in conversational English, five of the regulars — all elderly Russian women with scientific backgrounds — turned on a less-educated newcomer from Hong Kong. They rolled their eyes when she spoke, and they sniped in Russian. The instructor, a social work graduate student and former teacher, finally announced that she would not tolerate abusive behavior in the classroom and threatened to end the session the next time it happened. “That worked,” Ms. Frankel reported.
But bolstering old people’s ability to stand up for themselves might also work. Dr. Bonifas has undertaken a pilot research program on bullying in two Phoenix senior apartment complexes and has noticed that, as with youth bullies, not everyone is equally likely to be a target.
She’s contemplating how to teach someone to say, “You’re not going to treat me like that. Every chair here is available to anyone, and I’ll sit where I want.” That way, she thinks, “the bully doesn’t derive power from the interaction.”
(She’d like to hear about your experiences, if you or your parent has encountered cliquishness and insults from other seniors. Please comment below.)
Perhaps it shouldn’t startle us that this behavior arises in senior residences — people are people, after all, wherever they live — but I’ll admit to some surprise. We all remember this harassment from the cafeteria, but we’d like to think that people learn something in the intervening seven or so decades, right?
“We have expectations that as we grow older we become more mature — the stereotype of the wise old person who knows how to conduct herself,” Dr. Bonifas said. “That’s not necessarily the case.”