Mean Girls in Dementialand

When I was in graduate school, the movie Mean Girls came out. If you haven’t seen it, I don’t recommend putting it on your priority list, but I have to say it was thought-provoking for me–at least as thought-provoking as an American teen comedy can be.

Here’s the premise. The movie, which stars Lindsay Lohan (post-Parent Trap but pre-shoplifting), features a clique of 16-year-old girls called the Plastics, who is–go figure–really mean to other girls. The mean girls are intent on dragging other girls down rather than supporting them. If you are a female who can’t name a few mean girls from your adolescent days, you were probably living under a rock. Or maybe you were homeschooled. Or, worst of all, maybe you were a mean girl.

When I first saw this movie, I was forced to consider every group of mean girls that I considered peers. (To be fair, I don’t think I was ever a mean girl, but I know at times I did show some mean girl-type behaviors. I’m not sure you’ll find a woman who made it through adolescence that can honestly claim she never acted like a mean girl, even if she wasn’t one.) I can think of mean girls from kindergarten. I can think of mean girls from middle school, from high school, from college, from grad school.

Even as an adult, I can think of some women I’d classify as mean girls. I’ve learned to distance myself from them, but there will also be groups of women who I think of as mean girls. They are the judgmental women at the gym. They are moms who make other moms feel like bad moms. They are professionals who try to hold back other women in their careers. Unfortunately, they thrive on making other women feel inadequate, insecure, and awkward. It’s not a great thing for the female race. In fact, women who feel the need to sabotage other women in various aspects of life is–in my opinion–one of the reasons women have not achieved greater success relative to men in the workplace and politics.

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized that mean girls come in all types of packages. They aren’t always pretty and they aren’t always young. Just like there are wonderful people of all ages, they are challenging people of all ages. (It’s interesting that people tend to think I like all old people because I’m a gerontologist. I don’t like all old people any more than I like all young people, or all white people, or all disabled people.)

I received an email last week from a former student who now works as a nursing home administrator. She asked me to come do an educational presentation at her nursing home. I read the email twice to make sure I understood what she wanted…she wanted me to do a presentation for residents without dementia to get them to be nicer to residents with dementia. The residents without dementia tend to be annoyed and critical of the residents with dementia. They accuse them of faking confusion to get more attention from staff. They are impatient with those with dementia and even mock their behavior.

I’ve had several professional fields discuss this issue with me recently. One works at an adult day services facility. About half of the participants have dementia, whereas the other half do not. The people without dementia like to play cards during the day. The people with dementia sometimes try to play and often get scolded when they can’t follow the rules of the game. The people without dementia have started telling the people with dementia that they can’t play–and not in a very nice way. One participant recently told another (who has Alzheimer’s) that she needed to get her act together if she was going to play cards with the group.

“It’s like a Mean Girls sequel,” the employee told me. “You could call it Elder Mean Girls.

It’s not that men are immune to this type of behavior. It’s just that the vast majority of individuals in nursing homes, assisted livings, and adult day service settings are female. Also, men who spend time in these settings tend to keep to themselves a bit more.

I recently visited one of my Gerontology majors who is interning at an assisted living. She gave me a tour of the place and pointed at a group of women gathered in a common area drinking coffee.

“That’s the cool club,” she said quietly. “You gotta live here a while and prove yourself before you get an invite. And if you’re not sharp, they don’t want a thing to do with you.”

The cool club. Really? I asked how they treat residents with dementia. The intern told me that the cool club does a lot of eye-rolling around people with dementia. And then they just ignore them until they go away.

“And they asked the activity director if she could not tell the people with dementia about certain activities, like cooking class,” she shared. The cool club doesn’t think people with dementia belong in cooking class. The cool club worries that they will mess up the recipes.

I’d like to think that these people really aren’t mean. I’d like to think it’s a matter of education. If you don’t have a knowledge of dementia, I can understand how it’d be frustrating to live with individuals who have Alzheimer’s or other types of dementia. On some level, there’s probably a need to separate yourself from those individuals–because it’s scary to think you’re like them.

Most of my career centers around two different populations. The first is college students. I’m a college professor. I spend a lot of time with 18 to 23 year olds. Sure, some of them are entitled. Some of them are huge pains. But a lot of them are pretty awesome. The other group I work with is older adults (particularly those with dementia). And, you know, some of them are stubborn and difficult. Some might be set in their ways and inflexible. However, I get to hang out with a lot of really cool older people.

College students and older adults. Over the years, I’ve come to realize they’re really not that different. College students are in a time of transition. They move away from their families. They live in the residence halls. They establish a new sense of identity. New friends. New social network. They have to adjust to assigned roommates and shared living space. They have to eat when the dining center is open.

Older adults are sometimes in a similar time of transition. They may change living situations. Maybe they move to an assisted living or a nursing home. Maybe they downsize and buy a condo that’s part of a retirement community. They adjust to a new living environment. Maybe new roommates. A new routine. And they re-develop their sense of self.

I’d like to say that college students leave their cliques behind. I’d like to say that mean girls are no longer mean girls, but maybe that’s not that case. Maybe mean girls just regroup and form new bully gangs. Maybe sixty years later they will move to nursing homes and the pattern will repeat. I want to think mean girls grow out of being mean girls, but maybe some of them don’t.

When I was younger, I let mean girls make me feel bad about myself. I was too tall. I was too smart. Nerdy. I wore sweatpants and a jersey everyday. I had a mullet which my mother still refers to as “that cute haircut that was short in the front and longer in the back.” I was a teacher’s pet. I liked Bette Midler and listened continuously to the Beaches soundtrack. I looked like a Fraggle from Fraggle Rock. Those are things that middle school and high school mean girls target. Maybe, as I get older, mean girls will target me because I have dementia….because that might make me different from them. We pick on people who are different from us when we don’t make an effort to understand those differences.

I don’t claim to be able to solve the mean girl issue. However, I do think one of the best ways to get people to be nicer to other people is to educate them. It’s hard to be mean to people when you understand where they’re coming from. We tend to be critical of people we don’t understand. We tend to be impatient when we don’t understand what’s causing people’s behavior.

If you have a daughter (or a son) and don’t want them to grow up to be a jerk, make them have conversations with all types of people. (Yeah, I know that sounds like a contradiction to the whole “Don’t talk to strangers” thing.) The more we talk to people who are different, the more we realize that they aren’t that different. The more we realize that people aren’t so different from us inside, the more we are motivated to be accepting.

I don’t know if I can get residents without dementia to be nicer to residents with dementia. My idea is to do a simulation–so they get a small taste of what dementia is like. I have no idea if it will work, but it’s my little contribution to fight mean girls.

On a related note, if you are a tall, smart, nerdy adolescent girl who enjoys wearing sweatpants and looks a bit like a Fraggle, stop listening to mean girls. Don’t apologize for being your teachers’ favorite student. Bette Midler has a fantastic voice, and you are going to be just fine.



6 thoughts on “Mean Girls in Dementialand

  1. I completely agree. And I feel this is goes beyond the dementia issue… Even as we strive to make nursing homes and assisted livings “home-like,” the truth is that most individuals would rather be in their own homes and adjusting one’s lifestyle to fit into a new environment (and mesh with other people who are very different) is challenging. And of course this creates interpersonal dynamics that are sometimes negative.


  2. I really appresciate what you’re saying here, Elaine, and the role some education could play in improving this dynamic.
    I also think there is another factor operating – think how your life would change if suddenly, two strangers with dementia came to live in your house, with you and your husband, permanently, 24/7. They can’t leave, you can’t leave. You are sharing limited space and resources with two people whose pace, style, and idea of a good time, a satisfying day, are radically different from yours.
    I suspect that when facilities are hosting persons with and without dementia, in the same physical area, it poses a huge set of challenges, not always well met.


  3. I completely agree that people push others away when they don’t understand them. That’s why dementia education is so important. Thanks for your contribution. I really enjoy your blog!


  4. Thanks Elaine for another thoughtful post. It almost reminds me of some to the “mean politician ” stuff that is going on now nationally.

    I like your idea of a simulation. That, along with a discussion of empathy towards others who are different or have deficits. I would like to believe that once someone is able to put themselves into “someone else’s shoes”, there would be a little more kindness and understanding.


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