She feels their whispers, the gossip that pollutes the air. She steams. But she doesn’t have the guts to turn around.
This senior citizen is bullied.
“I go in my apartment and I boil,” said the elderly resident, who lives at Hastings House in Framingham. “I can’t stand that little clique out there.”
Experts say bullying happens at all ages; human nature doesn’t change at 55.
“In the past we just labeled it as pushy, obnoxious, difficult, not-nice behavior,” said Marsha Frankel, an expert in bullying among elders. “There’s no doubt in my mind that it’s going on.”
Residents say the bullies at Hastings House perch in the foyer and whisper just loud enough for others to hear. But they don’t say it to your face.
They grumble that one woman’s son visits too often. They want to know who’s going out, what she bought at the store. They make fun of peoples’ clothes, they talk about who shouldn’t use the laundry machine.
They snicker about who’s wearing too much makeup.
“It’s the nitpicking,” said another resident. Petty talk that erodes self-esteem.
“What am I, chopped liver?” one woman fumed.
Because of the bullies, some elderly and disabled tenants at Hastings House say they hate walking through the front door. One woman comes in the side door now.
Senior center and residential staff often don’t realize bullying happens among elders, says Frankel, a licensed social worker and clinical director of senior services at Jewish Family and Children’s Service in Waltham.
“I think the biggest issue is places acknowledging that there’s a problem and developing an approach,” she said.
Pushy behavior at the bingo table can escalate into bullying, Frankel said. Elders who are intimidated simply don’t return.
One woman at Hastings House doesn’t come to bingo anymore. Another, who loves when people pet her furry dog, prefers to watch TV in her room, rather than face the bullies.
Resident Service Coordinator Lisa Horning said she had no idea about the bullying at Hastings House, a 72-unit apartment building for the elderly or people with disabilities, owned by the Framingham Housing Authority.
Horning said she had heard about bullying at her son’s school, but not among these tenants.
“I didn’t know how extreme it was, emotionally,” Horning said.
One woman several weeks ago told Horning she was bullied at Hastings House. When Horning addressed the topic at a tenant meeting, seniors left sobbing, hugging.
“Inside they’re screaming for help but they won’t speak up because they’re afraid,” said a 65-year-old resident, comforting her friends.
Frankel works with Robin Bonifas, an Arizona State University professor who studies social bullying among elders.
“I think we’re just becoming aware of it and seeing it as a problem,” Bonifas said.
The professor defined bullying as intentional, negative behavior to gain power or control. Frankel said making others feel unwelcome in public spaces like a foyer or center is a form of bullying.
Medical conditions, such as dementia, that affect behavior aren’t bullying. Nor are misunderstandings or cultural differences.
But experts say repeatedly making fun of others, excluding them from meals or card games or criticizing hair, clothes or disabilities are bullying behaviors.
As is the case with children, many elderly victims don’t come forward, Bonifas said.
“I’ve done nothing to this woman, she’s mean,” said a Hastings House resident, talking about the whispers from people in the foyer.
Horning is finding a way to help the residents.
“I want to try to bring peace,” she said.
Several other MetroWest senior centers said they have seen overbearing personalities who intimidate others. But they say bullying is hard to put a finger on unless someone speaks up.
“Sometimes we’ll see that there are some very dominant or domineering figures in a group,” said Alma DeManche, director of the Westborough Senior Center.
“You see the cliquey stuff, but that’s normal,” said Joanne Duffy, elder services director in Ashland.
Duffy said one particularly intimidating senior used to make others feel uncomfortable, but then stopped coming to the center.
“It’s difficult when you’re dealing with adults,” she said.
Unlike school bullies, you can’t send elders to timeout. Centers want everyone to feel welcome.
Some elder caregivers said they have heard of bullying anecdotally but never in a formal complaint.
Nancy Phelan said her neighbor at Ashland Commons intentionally riles up a woman’s small dog, then complains that the woman with the dog should be forced to move out.
She goes out of her way to walk back and forth, back and forth, in front of the apartment where the dog lives. Boom! She slams doors to make the dog yip.
“(Bullying) surfaced enough for us to create a training,” said Michael Banville, vice president of the Massachusetts Assisted Living Facilities Association.
Frankel said she has been inundated with requests to give senior bullying training.
Horning, who has worked with the elderly and people with disabilities for more than 20 years, said bullying happens everywhere — not just in Framingham or in senior housing.
“It’s life,” she said.
And residents at Hastings House say nothing will fix the problem.
“No matter how much you talk to these people or what you do, people are people,” one tenant said.
But she, unlike others, doesn’t give in.
She can’t read or write and was bullied in school because of her dyslexia.
“Here comes the dummy,” kids would say to her.
“You turn around and confront that person,” she said, an edge in her voice. “They’re going to back right down.”
(Laura Krantz can be reached at 508-626-4429 or email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @laurakrantzmwdn.)