Image: Mary Noriega
John Brecher
Mary Noriega, 64, she says she never experienced bullying until she moved in to Pine Towers, a HUD-subsidized apartment building for senior and disabled people in Phoenix, Arizona. She said there are between 10 and 20 residents who make up a "controlling group," and that they conspire to isolate her. She says they've spread rumors, including one that she'd been evicted from her previous residence — although she can show letters of recommendation from previous landlords. She curtails her activity at the property, avoiding the laundry facility if others are present and staying out of the recreation room altogether. "It's hard 'cause I've never had to deal with it before. It would be easier to take if there was any truth to it."
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msnbc.com contributor
updated 2/16/2011 8:43:58 AM ET 2011-02-16T13:43:58

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.

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“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.”

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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.

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“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.”

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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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Video: ‘I’m not Super Gran,’ says purse-wielding woman

  1. Transcript of: ‘I’m not Super Gran,’ says purse-wielding woman

    MEREDITH VIEIRA, co-host: But we're going to begin with a grandmother who thwarted a jewelry heist in progress with her purse. We're going to talk with her exclusively in a moment, but first, NBC 's Peter Alexander has her story. Peter , good morning to you.

    PETER ALEXANDER reporting: Hey, Meredith , good morning to you. This is a fun one. Here in England , Ann Timson is still being celebrated for her efforts, but if you ask her, she'll likely tell you that she's no hero. Still, her handbag-wielding, arm-swinging act against six would-be robbers has earned her the nickname " Supergran ." And as you're about to see, there is nothing antique about this grandma. The video is striking and so were the sledgehammers, a brazen pack of thieves targeting a jewelry store. Then out of nowhere, there Ann Timson was. At 71, ignoring both her age and arthritis, afraid someone was getting beaten up. She quickly realized it was a break-in, so armed only with a handbag, the so-called Supergran started swinging.

    Ms. ANN TIMSON (Grandmother Who Foiled Armed Robbery): I think the adrenaline was going. I think I was really, really angry that they would dare to do a daylight robbery at that time of the day. And why should they get away with it?

    ALEXANDER: Suffice to say, they didn't get away with anything but handcuffs and perhaps a few bruises. Love this part, there goes the scooter.

    Mr. LUKE ALLEBONE (Jewelry Shop Manager): Amazing. Amazing. I mean, the courage shown to do that.

    ALEXANDER: The mayor was impressed and so was martial arts expert Joe Golby , who says the purse-wielding granny showed the skills of a seasoned pro.

    Mr. JOE GOLBY: She then does what any good fighter would do. She keeps attacking, not allowing them any way to enter her personal body space.

    Ms. ANNE ANDREOLI (Shop Owner): I think she was brave. I don't think she knew exactly what she was stepping into when she'd done it, but I certainly wouldn't have done the same.

    ALEXANDER: Who would have? Except the Supergran , of course.

    Ms. TIMSON: I mean, someone asked would I do it again and given the same circumstances where I thought a boy was taking a beating, I probably would.

    ALEXANDER: Can't get enough of that video. The Supergran does not mess around. By the way, four of those suspects have been charged with robbery and vehicle theft. Meredith , so far no comment from any of them.

    VIEIRA: OK. Peter Alexander , thank you very much . Ann Timson is with us exclusively along with her son Andre Dash and her granddaughter Charli . Good morning to you all.

    Ms. TIMSON: Good morning.

    Mr. ANDRE DASH: Good morning.

    VIEIRA: Ann , you know, people all over the world now have seen that video of you taking on the crooks and they've come to know you as Supergranny . Have you -- has this sunk in yet for you? Any of this?

    Ms. TIMSON: No.

    VIEIRA: No, it hasn't.

    Ms. TIMSON: No. It -- I'm not a hero or a heroine or a super gran. I'm just -- I'm just a mum that went in thinking a kid was being hit.

    VIEIRA: Well, that's right. On Monday when you saw those guys, you thought there was one kid being beat up by a group of others and you went running toward them. Then you realized these guys had sledgehammers, they were breaking into a jewelry store. But at that point you say it was too late for you to stop. What do you mean?

    Ms. TIMSON: In for a penny, in for a pound. It's like, I think the adrenaline got going and the second thought was how dare they do a daylight robbery . That was it.

    VIEIRA: So you were just mad.

    Ms. TIMSON: I was mad.

    VIEIRA: And I think what a lot of people don't know is you have arthritis, pretty serious arthritis. You sometimes need to use a wheelchair. And the only reason you could move as fast as you could that particular day was because you had on support bandages on your legs.

    Ms. TIMSON: Yes.

    VIEIRA: Because you were going off to a dance class later on in the day.

    Ms. TIMSON: Yes. That's right .

    VIEIRA: So you more -- you said 'I'm more amble when I did run up to them.'

    Ms. TIMSON: The legs would've wobbled -- they would have collapsed if -- on a run. So I wouldn't have said it was a run. It was an amble up the hill. I paid the penalty for it for the next four days.

    VIEIRA: A little bit sore.

    Ms. TIMSON: To say the least .

    VIEIRA: So as you're running at them, it -- what's going through your mind? Because all you have to defend yourself and to take them on is this...

    Ms. TIMSON: Oh yes.

    VIEIRA: Can you hold this up so they can see. Is this...

    Ms. TIMSON: Yes.

    VIEIRA: ...handbag.

    Ms. TIMSON: Yes.

    VIEIRA: And the only thing in it is a small purse and a newspaper at that point.

    Ms. TIMSON: Yes.

    VIEIRA: So can you show us what you did?

    Ms. TIMSON: I was holding it like that anyway, shopping. And it's just a two-handed thing. It's just a two-handed thing like that. Except that I -- oh, sorry, Charli . I...

    VIEIRA: Don't hit her.

    Ms. TIMSON: ...aimed it around -- you say their heads, but actually they had mega helmets on. It was not going to impact on them as hurt, but hopefully it would distract them from doing what they were doing.

    VIEIRA: Were you saying anything as you swung that day?

    Ms. TIMSON: Oh yes. Get off and go off and go off again and I think every time I whacked, I said, go off.

    VIEIRA: And at one point, didn't one of them lift the sledgehammer almost to attack you? Wasn't that -- a one point?

    Ms. TIMSON: Almost -- that was right at the very end when he'd come off his scooter. One of the wallops wobbled and knocked it -- it didn't knock them off their scooter. It went into wobbling and they fell off. I didn't even know he had the hammer in his hand. It was the second guy. I thought he'd just got on the scooter to sort of drive off with the other one. And that's when he stood up and threatened me with it. We just stood off, eyeball to eyeball and he just put it down. I think he realized I was just an old biddy anyway.

    VIEIRA: Well, not -- well, you got him in the end. I mean, they grabbed the guy. Was there a point, though, Ann , when you thought , 'I could really get hurt here'? I mean, you said you're not a hero...

    Ms. TIMSON: Right.

    VIEIRA: ...that in retrospect something terrible could have happened to you.

    Ms. TIMSON: I have -- I have to tell you, when I did stand still for a second and my lips were trembling with the effort, the physical effort and someone came out and said, 'Come and sit down for a minute.' And I thought -- I'm thinking, 'Oh, my God. What will my son say?'

    VIEIRA: And your son Andre is here. You live in the States . How did you hear about this and what was your reaction? Ann thought you would be furious, by the way.

    Mr. DASH: Well, I was a little surprised. I had a newspaper reporter call me the next day and I was sitting at a computer and he said look at the Internet and tell me what you think. And I was speechless. I really didn't know quite what to say. So I said I'd have to hang up and call my mom.

    VIEIRA: Does this surprise you, though? Your mom, she has a history of fighting crime in her neighborhood. Ann , I know the area where you live has been plagued with prostitution in the past and drug dealers and you've helped to clean it up. So it's almost your mom's MO to reach out and help somebody.

    Mr. DASH: Reaching out and helping somebody, not being somebody that is looking for the problems, but trying to solve problems that she sees as she comes -- as she greets them in her everyday life, yeah. Absolutely. She's not a vigilante.

    VIEIRA: Have you ever been victimized yourself, Ann ?

    Ms. TIMSON: Oh, yes. Yes. In our neighborhood about seven years ago, eight years ago we had a project come in called Casper One , Casper Two , Casper Three . They are areas of the town that you try to do something about because they are desperate to have things done. Drugs, whatever is going on, in those neighborhoods. We became Casper Three originally, and that's where the first cleanup started. It was -- I live in a ground floor accommodation there. We were open plan and all our blocks of flats had alleyways which, of course, became known as rat runs. Eventually all those rat runs were wired off, fenced off. We put gardens in place. We removed bushes. But yes, because for 18 months I lived in the dark there because being ground floor on my own, the -- it was an ideal place for people to meet and do their drug deals, whatever, using my lights.

    VIEIRA: Yeah. So you know what trouble is all about and you've fought it for a long time.

    Ms. TIMSON: I know what it can be.

    VIEIRA: You do. You know, my buddy over there, Ann Curry said you have the right hair color to be a superhero.

    Ms. TIMSON: Oh, yes.

    VIEIRA: Even if you don't want to be one yourself. Did it bother you that nobody else ran up to stop this crime?

    Ms. TIMSON: It did a bit. But looking at it, you know, they -- as much as anything, although mobile phones came out and they were mobiling, I think they stood absolutely mesmerized and somebody else would say they thought it was a wind-up, that it was for a show. They actually thought it was a wind-up.

    VIEIRA: But anything but that.

    Ms. TIMSON: Right.

    VIEIRA: Are you selling the bag on eBay ?

    Ms. TIMSON: Andre 's going to deal with something like that and maybe we can give the funds to charity if anybody wants to buy it, they're more than welcome.

    VIEIRA: I'm sure a lot of people will bid on that bag. Ann , such a pleasure to have you here.

    Ms. TIMSON: Thank you.

    VIEIRA: Supergranny , whether you like me calling you that or not, I'm going to.

    Ms. TIMSON: Fine.

    VIEIRA: Andre and Charli , thank you, as well.

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