Sunday, May 13, 2018
News publication sites affiliated with USA Today and the Associated Press have been running a recent piece on "bullying" among older persons, often with a provocative headline such as "It's like 'Mean Girls,' but everyone is 80": How nursing homes deal with bullies. The title undoubtedly catches many a reader's eye, simply because of the heightened discussions of bullying at a national level, including Melania Trump's recent announcement of her Be Best platform for younger persons. The topic isn't actually all that new from a journalism perspective. Paula Span wrote on "Mean Girls in Assisted Living" for the New York Times in 2011, and the same publication carried a granddaughter's Op Ed on "Mean Girls in the Retirement Home" in 2015.
On a parallel track, and perhaps more disturbing, are reports of bullying among nurses, a profession normally associated with empathy and caring. See e.g., "When 'Mean Girls' Wear Scrubs," a 2013 post on DiversityNursing Blog, tracking a several studies and a book.
More important than the clever headlines, however, are the reports of affirmative efforts to counter the bullying, which at the older end of the spectrum of life, seems to focus on name-calling, gossip, and ostracising behavior, rather than physical intimidation. From the most recent USA Today writer's article:
After the cafeteria exiles and karaoke brouhahas, the 30th Street [Senior] Center [in San Francisco] teamed up with a local nonprofit, the Institute on Aging, to develop an anti-bullying program. All staff members received 18 hours of training that included lessons on what constitutes bullying, causes of the problem and how to manage such conflicts. Seniors were then invited to similar classes, held in English and Spanish, teaching them to alert staff or intervene themselves if they witness bullying. Signs and even place mats around the center now declare it a “Bully Free Zone.”. . .
Robin Bonifas, a social work professor at Arizona State University and author of the book “Bullying Among Older Adults: How to Recognize and Address an Unseen Epidemic,” said existing studies suggest about 1 in 5 seniors encounters bullying. She sees it as an outgrowth of frustrations characteristic in communal settings, as well a reflection of issues unique to getting older. Many elderly see their independence and sense of control disappear and, for some, becoming a bully can feel like regaining some of that lost power.
I think that last line rings true. I've certainly seen older adults sudden strike a "meaner" demeanor as their freedom is limited by physical health issues and as their frustrations increase. But I also think it can be important to assess whether a "mean" trait -- or at least a "meaner" dynamic -- is a reflection of cognitive impairment, such as disinhibition associated with certain types of neurocognitive impairments.
On an even more worrisome level, is there a danger of misinterpreting fear or irritation as "meanness," perhaps arising from compelled interactions in a congregated living situation? In one instance, I've seen an older woman who had regularly chose to sit with the same group of 3 other individuals at meals for several weeks, suddenly reject one member of their informal club. It took careful listening to realize the rejection was actually uneasiness bordering on fear -- on some level not completely rational -- but associated with that targeted individual's tendency to wander at night into others' rooms and thus to lead the "mean girl" to try to keep the other away from her around the clock. Targeting the "bullying" behavior could be addressing the wrong problem in the latter case.
Finally, I think there is a danger associated with the admittedly clever tendency to use the "Mean Girls" movie as the analogy for older bullying, thus implying this is only an issue (and problem) associated with women, not men. As a later paragraph in the most recent article makes clear, bullying behavior among older adults is not "just" about women. But perhaps that is obvious from the larger national news?