Pam Cytrynbaum

Pamela Cytrynbaum

Because I'm the Mom


Mean Girls: Senior Women Being Bullied in Assisted Care?

Is 'senior bullying' rampant among women in assisted living and nursing homes?

Posted Jun 01, 2013

As I watch my daughter navigate the minefields of female friendships – the roller coaster ride from BFFs to Bully and back again, all before lunch – a recent article reminded me that the skills we learn on the playground may come in handy as we age.

Paula Span writes a terrific blog for The New York Times called "The New Old Age," In one post, called: "Caring and Coping – Mean Girls in Assisted Living," Span reveals a new trend in elder abuse we should worry about for our parents and ourselves identified as "Senior Bullying"

Span's article poses the question: "What happens to mean girls?"

Her answer?" Some of them go on to become mean old ladies."

Apparently the tactics of bullying used on the playground are nearly identical to the bullying going on in the TV lounges, cafeterias and game rooms of assisted living facilities and nursing homes.

Location, Location, Location 

In middle school, the mean girls establish their bullying by taking over areas where everyone is supposed to be free to be, like rows of seats in the auditorium, swing sets, whole sections of the playground. And, of course, there's the cruel tradition of picking teams for gym.

In assisted living facilities it's all about the TV lounge. The elder bullies take over and control when – and if – anybody else gets to enter.


In middle school, you're either in or you're out and your status can change on a dime. Make the wrong joke or wear the wrong thing and everybody turns their back when you walk into the cafeteria to find a seat for lunch. The cafeteria has long been the classic arena for bullies to publicly demonstrate their power.

Alas, it appears the same in assisted living facilities, according to Marsha Frankel, clinical director of senior services at Jewish Family and Children's Services in Boston, who is quoted as lamenting: "Dining room issues are ubiquitous."

"General Nastiness"

Girls can say the cruelest things to each other. Apparently, so can their grandmothers.

In the world of middle school, Queen Bees wield the popularity stinger over their minions. Nobody wants to fall out of favor so the group opens and closes on its members with distressing randomness, regularity and shocking meanness.

In a section she calls "General Nastiness," Span details an astonishingly similar dynamic prevalent in assisted living facilities. Malicious gossip is a key tool in the bullying trade. People publicly insult each other, drum each other out of exercise classes or even harass other residents' family members.

In the meantime, I'm taking good notes on the anti-bullying strategies I'm learning with my daughter. There is a huge movement of research, books and resources for parents and grandparents who want to inoculate our children and grandchildren against the bullying. Seems to me we can learn a lot from the drama on the playground.

In my next post I'll talk about what to do if you think your aging parent is being bullied in her assisted living facility or nursing home.