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When Nancy Murphy moved into a retirement community near Portland, Ore., she didn’t realize she’d actually traveled back in time. “I came into breakfast one morning and this woman sitting at a nearby table sees me and says, ‘Well, would you look at the new girl? She has WET HAIR!’” says Murphy, a 75-year-old retired schoolteacher. “She did this three mornings in a row. Then I found a flyer in my mailbox with a copy of the house dress rules. I know she tucked it in there.”
Murphy, who’s lived at the facility just under two months, says she ignores the woman’s jabs — “I refer to her as Harriet High School” — but others at the nursing home have confided they’re afraid of her.
While much scrutiny and study has been devoted to bullying in grade school and high school these last few years, less attention has been paid to another category of bullies: those with gray hair, false teeth, hearing aids and canes. But according to experts, gray-haired bullies do exist and, as with their younger counterparts, their behavior can run the gamut from verbal intimidation to physical violence.
There's little published research on elderly bullying, but Bonifas estimates about 10 to 20 percent of seniors have experienced some type of senior-to-senior aggression in an institutional setting, much of it verbal abuse. Both men and women can bully, she says, but women tend towards passive-aggressive behavior like gossiping and whispering about people when they enter a room while men are more “in your face”. “With men, it’s more negative comments directly to the person,” she says “With women, it’s more behind your back.”
“There’s kind of a continuum to this aggressive behavior,” she says. “Bullying would be on the lower end of the spectrum and at the higher end, you’ll have actual incidents of violence between seniors. They could be hitting each other, kicking each other; there have actually been deaths.”