I volunteer at my church and www.greatplacesinc.com is well known among the parishioners - as is my cell phone number. Over the past few years I have received several calls from seniors in assisted living facilities wanting to share the “goings on” of their community. They frequently describe what someone said at dinner or the behavior of some notorious resident whose name, I am supposed to have committed to memory from previous conversations. I frequently give advice on what response I might have to the words or deeds of these unkind acts. For the most part this all seems rather silly or maybe the result of too little to do. But a dear friend sent me an article yesterday that labels some of this behavior as bullying and perhaps that is what it is.
In the article Gina Kaurich, an executive director at FirstLight HomeCare is quoted as saying, “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.”
“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.”
The article went on to quote a source called Bonifas to estimate that “10-20 percent of seniors are bullied with some type of senior-to-senior aggression in an institutional setting, much of it verbal abuse. Both men and women can bully… 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…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…sometimes over something as trivial as a coveted spot at the dinner table.”
I was shocked. Somehow I thought that when we moved into the next stage of our lives it would be lovely to have all of these delightful neighbors for company. But I found that when I hit middle age I got my first chronic ache and started to gain a few pounds. That made me mad. Part of the anger was directed at me for not being more disciplined about exercise and diet but some of the anger was about the aging process which I could only temper not stop. Maybe some of these folks are angry, frustrated, hurting and end up taking it out on each other,
I checked with my own personal “senior circle” and found that indeed moving to an assisted living or skilled nursing community involves a social adjustment. Being the “new kid” in the building can be every bit as traumatic as changing schools mid-year in grade school. One likened the senior cliques to prison gangs with the same intimidating behavior patterns you see on TV. She admitted that might be a bit strong but said the power of feeling picked on or ostracized in a group setting can be extremely painful.
If you have family or friends in a senior community pay attention to the dynamic when you visit. Ask those you visit how comfortable they feel, who they like and dislike and why. If you uncover any bullying or isolation behavior, meet with the staff or other professionals to seek advice on how to solve the problem. Acceptance is a human need. Isolation and loneliness can lead to depression and illness. Bullying isn’t just a kid problem.