Is 80 the new 15?

Is 80 the new 15? June 2, 2011

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.

"Saint Joseph of Cupertino.'Nuff said."

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