Is 80 the new 15?

According to the New York Times, the ascendance of mean girls in assisted living suggests that quite a few old, gray mares are exactly what they used to be:

This phenomenon, a sort of social bullying, apparently comes as no surprise to 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 led workshops (innocuously called “Creating a Caring Community”) for staff and residents.

What sort of behavior are we talking about? Ms. Frankel and Robin Bonifas, an assistant professor of social work at Arizona State who has begun research on senior bullying, described various situations:

Attempts to turn public spaces into private fiefdoms. “There’s a TV lounge meant to be used by everyone, but one person tries to monopolize it — what show is on, whether the blinds are open or shut, who can sit where,” said Dr. Bonifas. Exclusion. “Dining room issues are ubiquitous,” said Ms. Frankel. When there’s no assigned seating, a resident may loudly announce that she’s saving a seat, even if no one else is expected, to avoid someone she dislikes. In an exercise class, added Ms. Frankel, who has gathered examples from administrators at several Massachusetts facilities, “one resident told another, in a condescending way, that she was doing it all wrong and shouldn’t be allowed to take the class.”

General nastiness. “People loudly and publicly say insulting things. ‘You’re stupid.’ ‘You don’t know what you’re talking about.’” Ms. Frankel said. In a Newton, Mass., facility she observed, a resident actually discouraged her daughter from visiting, because the daughter was obese and her mother didn’t want her subjected to disparaging gossip. Racial and ethnic differences can also set off malicious comments.

Could all this be a consequence of cognitive impairment? Sometimes, Ms. Frankel said. Dementia can lead to disinhibition, and people say things they might once merely have thought.

But social manipulation and exclusion seem to have more to do with acquiring power, a feeling of control, at a point in life when older people can feel powerless. (Adolescence is another of those points, of course.)

“Perhaps people don’t have ways to get that sense of control in healthy ways, so it’s done by dominating others,” said Dr. Bonifas, a former nursing home social worker. “It gives them a sense that they’re important.”

Some intended victims can shrug off this petty tyranny, but others suffer. They withdraw from activities and social situations, perhaps experience anxiety or depression, want to move out. “It can get pretty nasty, and these are vulnerable people,” Ms. Frankel said.

My heart goes out to these harpies. For decades, they set their own schedules, chose their own friends and indulged their own prejudices — basically, lived like free, adult human beings. Now, all of a sudden, they find themselves in a highly structured environment. Since they have minimal autonomy and minimal privacy, every single thing they do carries enormous social reprecussions.

To live that kind of life, most people have to make some sort of conscious decision: to sign enlistment papers, profess vows, join a kibbutz, commit a felony. All these poor biddies did was live too long.

I may be biased here because my grandmother was a born mean girl. My grandfather was more Trench Coat Mafia material; though a mesalliance, their marriage lasted over 60 years.

By smoking two packs a day, I’m doing my best to pre-empt any such complications at the end of my own life. If I fail, I hope my POA will pack me off to Sod-Off Acres: A Dignified Home for Surly Introverts.

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  • DWiss

    Disinhibition. Now THAT’S a useful word.

  • Gayle Miller

    Max, Max, Max – you are rapidly becoming an addiction! This is without a doubt the most hilarious AND thought provoking read I’ve had all day! And I work for lawyers!

    Don’t stop, please don’t stop. I’m retiring as of tomorrow and losing your site would be a major bummer!

  • honeybee

    “My heart goes out to these harpies.”

    Really, Max? These mean old ladies were that way long before they entered the assisted living community. Maybe if they had been nicer, less controlling witches, they would be living with their children. Can you tell that I have a mother that very closely resembles the description of these women?!

  • Max Lindenman

    Not to worry, Gayle — I just got here!

    (To anyone else who’s said anything sweet that I haven’t responded to, I apologize . This getting compliments business is still new and exotic. Maybe some kind soul will call me a relatvist jagoff, so I’ll know I’m awake.)

    Honeybee: That might be true in some cases, but kids shuck off even sweet parents. Paradoxically, I’ve met some old people who dominated their kids so thorughly that the kids wouldn’t have dared get rid of them. It’s a mug’s game, aging.

  • momor

    I mostly have sympathy. We can’t expect people who have lived independently to always make nice with 20, 30, 40, etc. other people who have also lived independently and also have their own ideas and preferences. My mom lives in a community and I think it’s pretty amazing how well most of them get along and how relatively innocent their attempts at creating some kind of control are. Especially when you add in chronic illness and aches and pains and cognitive impairment to the mix..

  • Jan

    Would it help if I said “Hey Max, you little creep”? ;)

    It’s been my experience (so far…I’m not that old) that – short of organic brain disease – there are two circumstances that reveal a person’s underlying and true personality. Divorce and nursing homes.

    Been divorced and know about that first hand. Worked in a nursing home as a nurse and saw many different personality types. Surprisingly, a lot of folks are pleasant but some are really mean – physically and verbally. Although I never thought about the relationship to their behavior in their youth, it makes sense that they may have been similarly disposed when young.

    A loved one, something of a controller at that, is in a nursing home right now and it’s pretty awful.

  • Thag Jones

    Aw, I have a soft spot for surly introverts. But you should give up the smoking because surly introverts turn into grumpy old men, and everyone loves a grumpy old man!

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  • Andews Hayes

    They’re just too lonely, I guess? Seriously, In my perspective, I think they’re just feeling how people feel during a mid-life crisis – they want to feel young and stuff. Probably, their social lives are the first thing they see, and thus the “Mean Girls” scenario happens.