Several weeks ago, Ruthanne Mack, 74, watched a new resident walk into the dining room of her Sacramento-area assisted living facility.
Mack remembers how everyone watched from the long wooden tables and sized up the tall woman with dark gray hair and an able body. But no one beckoned for her to join them, Mack said.
“It’s like she was the new girl at school,” she said. “No one made her feel welcome or part of the group.”
For some older Americans, the transition to senior care facilities can be reminiscent of grade school days. The new residents are sometimes ignored and excluded. Finding a welcome seat in the lunchroom can be a stress-inducing experience. People might make fun of their hair or outfit. Gossip flies across the room, and often residents form cliques.
“If you talk to anyone on the street, they know bullying among youth is a problem,” said Robin Bonifas, an associate professor at Arizona State University who studies the phenomenon. “But people are still very surprised that this happens among older adults.”
At one facility, Bonifas noticed a “welcoming” committee of senior ladies who sat in the lobby and gossiped about everyone who went by, leading some to pick an alternative exit. Then there was a man who would “oink” at a larger female resident. Another man threatened to smack a resident with a hammer. He didn’t carry one, but the victim still lived in fear.
Bonifas’ research has found that about 20 percent of people in senior care facilities have experienced these antagonistic behaviors nationwide. As older adults face aging—and the mental and physical losses it brings—bullies try to assert control, just like their middle-school counterparts.
Common targets are those who are different from the dominant group such as by race, religion, sexual orientation or wealth. The implications of this relational aggression on health and wellbeing can be substantial, especially for residents who are already coping with depression or anxiety.
And, if residents choose to isolate themselves in their rooms, their overall health suffers, said Steve Sciurba, the director of community outreach for The Kensington in Sierra Madre. “The longer you’re in there, the more depressed and physically weaker you get,” he said. “It’s very important to socialize.”
Inside the Care Facilities
Along with physical challenges, residents of assisted care facilities often face cognitive impairment. That not only makes them more vulnerable to bullying, but can also lead to aggressive behaviors as they themselves lose the ability to navigate social cues, said Southern California elder care consultant Brenda Shorkend.
Within facilities, there often emerges a social hierarchy, with the physically and cognitively stronger occupying the top ranks.
“Some of it is mean and some of it is practical,” she said.
For example, it can be frustrating to dine with a resident who repeats the same story ten times, she said. It’s natural for residents to seek out like-minded people.
Mary Speare, 87, can relate to that.
At her Orange County senior facility, Speare prefers to go on walks with people whose company she enjoys.
“The women I walk with—we may not have anything in common but at least they’re intellectual,” she said. “They’re bright and we’re able to talk about different subjects.”
From nearly a decade of observing social interactions in senior facilities, Anthony Aquino has come to realize that people don’t change that much.
“It reflects the community outside,” said Aquino, director of resident services for Carlton Senior Living Poets Corner. “A lot of people are very, very mean and tend to have these bullying tendencies just like high school. A lot of cliques form.”
Romantic interests can add another layer to the drama. He recalls one man in particular who had three to four girlfriends at a time.
“Sometimes, there would be a verbal altercation: ‘He’s my boyfriend,’” he said.
While staff members need to monitor social interactions, they must balance that with protecting people’s rights to mingle in their own homes, Aquinas said.
In California, awareness is growing about senior bullying, said Jedd Hampton, the policy director for LeadingAge California, an advocacy group for not-for-profit senior living and care. In recent years, he’s seen an increased effort among the group’s 400 members, with many hosting training and outreach for staff and residents alike.
Licensed clinical social worker Alyse November wrote a training program that targets bullying in senior facilities. Her program includes videos with common scenarios that put people in the shoes of the victim, which is often eye opening, she said.
Her message: You don’t have to be friends with everyone, but you can still be kind. For example, if you don’t want to play bridge with someone with dementia, invite the person to watch a movie instead. If you don’t want to dine with someone, walk him or her to another table. Little gestures like saying “good morning” or “nice outfit” matter.
“It’s about creating a positive emotional climate where people just get it,” November said. “It’s not as simple as putting a big red ‘No Bullying’ sign up.”
Creating an inclusive environment is important to Evelyn Kay, 86, a longtime Bakersfield resident who now lives in a Seattle retirement community. When she notices people avoiding the dining room, she phones their rooms with a personal invite. And, even though she might not want to sit next to someone with dementia every night, she will on occasion.
As for Mack, the woman who spotted the “new girl” in her Sacramento facility, she decided to introduce herself that day. She said she could relate to the perils of social isolation, and the depression and irritability it can cause.
“I told her what was available here and what the rules are,” Mack said. “Now, it’s getting better and she’s less shy than she was. As you get to know people, it gets easier.”
This story has been updated to reflect Robin Bonifas’ current title.