Traditional stereotypes paint a gilded image of the twilight years.
White-haired ladies are supposed to while away their afternoons sipping tea, playing bridge and knitting comforters for their grandchildren.
Elderly gentlemen are supposed to read murder mysteries, compare rose gardens and reminisce about a kinder, gentler nation.
When asked about those lingering stereotypes, however, the directors of senior centers and adult day care programs have a hard time stifling laughter.
"We have eight classes of aerobics a week. When you see people out on the floor doing the electric slide three times a week, you don't think of little old ladies," said Nancy Allred, assistant director of the Pascal Senior Center in Glen Burnie.
But she and other senior program directors also admit there can be a flip side to all the bottled-up energy.
Stuck with the same group day after day, irritated by aching bones and arthritic joints, disoriented at times by medicine, some seniors can become quarrelsome and downright combative.
At least half of about 85 program directors attending a seminar sponsored by the National Council on the Aging Inc. last week said they had seen clients hit, shove, yank, grab, punch, kick or bite each other.
"We have one man who goes barreling toward the exit door up to 10 times a day," said Doris Wagner, a nurse at the South Carroll Adult Day Care Center in Carroll County. "Whenever we try to cut him off, he lashes out."
Another adult day care provider immediately chimed in: "We had someone throw hot coffee on a person."
Jeri L. Brandt, an assistant professor at the College of Nursing at the University of Nebraska and a specialist in behavior management, was not surprised.
"One of the biggest problems with disruptive behavior is that we don't even know anything is wrong until somebody suddenly says, 'I hate this place. I hate this food,' and throws the plate across the table," she said.
"The tough part is to get right in there before they get to that level of frustration."
Brandt gave the adult care providers from across Maryland a list of tips to smooth the waters before an argument turns into a confrontation.
She suggested learning the case history before a client joins a center, pairing new members with a "buddy" and encouraging all seniors to participate in activities rather than bicker on the sidelines.
"You want to avoid direct confrontation if at all possible," Brandt said. "It's better to stay at a distance and try to interrupt the fight without getting in the middle of it."
By spotting the first warning signs, a trained provider can stop many conflicts, she said. If a sports enthusiast suddenly refuses to join the afternoon exercise program, or a talkative woman suddenly becomes silent, the program director should take the hint. Adult day care providers also should be alert to abrupt changes in a senior's routine, check if the person has switched to new medication, and remember that disoriented seniors often consider the world threatening.
Between listening to Brandt and practicing intervention, the program directors traded stories and tips last Thursday. The one-day workshop at the Holiday Inn in Annapolis was one in a series sponsored by the National Council on Aging, a nonprofit senior advocacy group based in Washington.
"This is one of the issues that keeps coming up with an increasingly frail population that we felt had been largely ignored," said Paul Kerschner, senior vice president of the council.
Allred and other workshop participants left saying they had learned a number of new techniques to handle disruptions at their centers.
"We really want to make sure we know what to do if there is an incident," said Mary Ann Cheers, head of the Arnold Senior Center. "It's not an everyday occurrence, but we have had some experience with extreme mood swings. We're trying to keep the place as safe and happy as possible."