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.
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.
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.”