Handling Cliques

By Sharon Naylor

June 3, 2011 5 min read

Cliques are not just found in high school. The dynamics of an "in" group and the outsiders are very much in play at senior living communities, and when a resident doesn't fit in with the A-list, it can be a very disappointing and stressful living situation. The allure of a senior living community was supposed to be social interaction and making friends, or so thought the senior and his or her family when making plans for this to be the senior's new home. When the clique doesn't welcome a new member, he or she can feel very much out in the cold, lonely and increasingly depressed.

Terri Glimcher, life enrichment director of Emeritus at Oak Park and author of "G is for Golden Years: A Life Enrichment Guide for Senior Living," says the stress of clique nonacceptance sounds like this: "I've saved this seat for my friend, so you can't sit here." "You can't play; there are already four of us." "I need to sit near my friends on the bus." The message is, "You are not welcome."

The "in" crowd in high school is often the circle of happy, attractive high achievers, but that's not always the case in senior living communities. "Oftentimes people who are unhappy about being moved from their homes tend to form a clique with those other residents who seem to be experiencing the same feelings," Glimcher says. "They tend not to be accepting of other residents who are joyful and happy most of the time." Amazingly, the members of this circle do not welcome those who could lift their spirits. They're bonding over their misery.

Some groups form solid barriers around themselves based on an interest. "Other cliques may be the bingo group or the group of women who are looking for a good man," Glimcher says.

When a senior first feels the sting of social rejection, especially after living as the patriarch or matriarch of his or her family -- always enjoyed, valued and respected -- the most common reaction is self-questioning. "What did I do to offend them?" At this point, the senior might feel as if a campaign of kindness is needed -- going out of his or her way to compliment members of the group, give them little gifts, invite them to activities, etc., all with a smile, which is the last thing the misery club wants. A new resident of the community doesn't know what makes each clique tick, so these first missteps often make the hole deeper.

If you're a resident facing unwelcoming clique activity, speak with a member of the community's staff -- not to whine about being shunned, but to ask for clues and tips on how to befriend residents. Don't be afraid to ask for help fitting in. An insider is your best resource for learning what would eliminate the clique's bad behavior or -- perhaps more importantly -- that it's a futile effort to try to fit in.

"I'm glad I asked, because the director told me that those three ladies have never welcomed anyone new into the group," says senior Nina Everness. "She then told me who was approachable, which ladies shared my hobbies, and who was worth developing a friendship with."

"There is a type of caste system among residents," says Gina Kaurich, executive director of client care services at FirstLight HomeCare. "Even fun activities, such as singing, aren't immune from bully behavior." Here are her tips on ways to combat senior bullies:

1) Take care of yourself first and foremost.

2) Recognize the behavior for what it is, abuse.

3) Call it out to the bullies that what they are doing is abuse.

4) Make certain to tell someone you trust about the situation.

5) If possible, get a witness and then write down the incidents of bullying, including dates, times and descriptions.

6) Ignore the bullies.

7) Avoid them.

8) Do not reinforce their behavior with positive or negative attention.

9) Be assertive and demand the bullying stop.

10) Get professional help involved as a resource.

Keep in mind that the community managers and staff are always on the lookout for bad behavior by residents. Glimcher has asked cliques' leaders to head up welcoming committees, which has been successful in opening the cliques' doors. Her community also hosts a monthly auction of donated prizes, and residents earn $20 in "fun money" each time they are seen being helpful or kind to other residents. She says that residents' drive to have more "money" to spend motivates positive, welcoming actions.

Of course, a new resident can start a special interest club to attract new friends, creating a brand-new group that welcomes others warmly. The cliques soon become less important, and better quality of life ensues.

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