When I visited Mom at the nursing home yesterday, I noticed that all her cookies were gone. Last Sunday I brought her a bag of Pepperidge Farm soft-baked oatmeal raisin cookies and a bag of Ginger Man cookies. It’s possible that she ate them all, but it is also worth noting that her roommate is a kleptomaniac. The aides told me this when she first moved in last May. I brought her another bag of oatmeal cookies yesterday, but before leaving, I walked over to the other lady’s side of the room and discovered a bag of the same oatmeal cookies on her bureau. Very interesting. At that point I decided to write Mom’s name on the new bag of cookies.
Of course, this is fairly harmless behavior, and not much I can do about it. After all, the nursing home is not a police state. However, Mom’s stuffed animal cat Mouse went missing in August, which devastated her. Luckily, I found duplicates of the stuffed animal at a Hallmark store and bought them all. When I presented her with the new “Mouse” for her birthday, I lied and said that one of the aides found her. She was in seventh heaven.
Although I haven’t witnessed it firsthand, there is far more devious behavior going on in assisted living facilities and nursing homes. The problem is Biddy Bullies, or Mean Girls of Advanced Age.
The New York Times featured an article by Paula Span on May 31, 2011 entitled “Mean Girls in Assisted Living.” The article tells the story of Rhea Basroon’s mother, who moved into a New Jersey assisted living facility and bonded with a woman named Irene. Ms. Basroon said they became inseparable until a third woman lured Irene away from her mother
Ms. Basroon said, “She was so lonely. There was no one else she bonded with.”
The third resident eventually tired of Irene and dumped her. Then Irene rekindled her friendship with Ms. Basroon’s mother.
This “social bullying” does not surprise 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 conducted a workshop entitled “Creating a Caring Community” for staff and residents.
Ms. Frankel and Dr. Robin Bonifas, assistant professor of social work at Arizona State described various scenarios of social bullying:
1. “Attempts to turn public places into private fiefdoms. ‘There’s a TV lounge meant to be used by everyone, but one person tries to monopolize it . . .’ ” said Dr. Bonifas.
2. Exclusion. “Dining room issues are ubiquitous,” said Ms. Frankel. When there is no assigned seating, some residents may announce that they are saving a seat even if no one else is expected. Ms. Frankel has gathered stories from several Massachusetts facilities and said that during exercise class at one facility, a resident “told another in a condescending way, that she was doing it all wrong and shouldn’t be allowed to take the class.”
3. General meanness. “People loudly and publicly say insulting things. ‘You’re stupid.’ ‘You don’t know what you’re talking about.’ ” Ms. Frankel said. One resident discouraged her obese daughter from visiting because she knew she would become the source of gossip and ridicule for other residents. “Racial and ethnic differences can also set off malicious comments.”
Ms. Frankel said that dementia may lead to relaxing of inhibitions (I will vouch for this with my own mother), but that is only part of the picture since not all residents are demented.
Social manipulation is more about acquiring power and feeling in control, just as in adolescence. Ms. Frankel has found that her workshops are not very effective at getting mean seniors to behave in a kinder, gentler fashion, but sometimes the staff will intervene.
Dr. Bonifas has undertaken a pilot research program on bullying in two Phoenix senior apartment complexes and noted that, as with young bullies, not everyone is going to be a target. She is thinking of 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.” This helps the “target” take back his/her power from the bully.
So it seems the adage “older and wiser” doesn’t always prove true. Sometimes it’s just older and meaner.