By Robin Reese
Bernadine Jones has lived in an Atlanta senior housing complex for nearly four years. The 71-year-old former nurse enjoys gardening and spending time with her dog. She never would have believed that she'd be spending so much of her time indoors now, all because she fears of one her neighbors.
"I'm afraid to go out my door. I have to look out before I leave," said Jones.
The resident who is the cause of Jones' concern is 87-year-old Maria Zuravinski, a longtime resident of the complex.
Jones has accused Zuravinski of battery and has obtained a special conditions bond, which is an order of protection that dictates Zuravinski can have no contact with Jones and must stay at least 200 yards away from her.
Jones said the problems started in 2010 when the complex decided to start a community garden. She volunteered to join the project and a small group of residents began clearing an area in the courtyard to prepare for planting. Jones said Zuravinski approached her one day and accused her of disturbing some of her personal plants. According to Jones, the confrontation escalated when Zuravinski began yelling at her, calling her names, hit her with her cane and then spit on her. Jones said she first called the management office and then called police.
Afterwards, the county solicitor's office granted the "no contact" bond order. But Jones said Zuravinski has ignored it and the antagonizing behavior has continued. In February, Jones said she called the police again when Zuravinski harassed her while she was walking her dog. Zuravinski was arrested for aggravated stalking and released on bond.
"I don't deserve to live like this," said Jones.
She said she has resorted to having a neighbor take her dog out during the day so she can avoid Zuravinski. When ABC affiliate WSB-TV was at the complex recently attempting to speak with Zuravinski, she tried to hit Jones' dog with her cane as the dog walker brought the animal off the elevator.
"She [is] crazy," Zuravinski said when asked by the WSB reporter about the situation with Jones.
Bullying among seniors seems to be a fairly recent phenomenon, according to Robin Bonifas, a gerontology expert and assistant professor at Arizona State University School of Social Work.
Bonifas estimates 10-20 percent of seniors have experienced bullying at the hands of a peer.
"Bullying is kind of on the continuum of aggression," said Bonifas.
She points out that it's not necessarily related to dementia or other mental health decline, but is more relational and can manifest itself in gossiping, threatening or exclusionary behaviors. For some, she said, the seniors may have been bullies all their lives and this is a continuation of that behavior. For others, it could be fear related to a loss of control or independence that brings out bullying behavior as a way to exert control over their environment and the people around them.
With the increase in the numbers of seniors living longer, senior communities are being forced to address this issue. Bonifas encourages managers and social workers to put policies in place to deal with bullying that set a clear message that the behavior will not be tolerated.
"It's kind of like the senior organizations are now at the place where schools were 20 years ago", said Bonifas.
For Bernadine Jones, she said she just wants to enjoy her life and not live in fear.
"I don't want to deal with this anymore," she said, "and I don't want to be forced out of my home".
Jones may just get her wish. According to information obtained by WSB-TV, an Atlanta Housing Authority representative said an effort to evict Zuravinski is now in the hands of a judge.