By both appearance and lack of physical coordination, these two old Russian men shouldn’t be brawling. That, however, is exactly the appeal of the fight that plays out as if it’s in slow-motion, the two senior citizens slowly falling over each other like a Three Stooges bit. Various iterations of this years-old viral video have drawn millions of combined views, and it’s easy to see why, given the slapstick comedy of seeing grandpas throwing hands and falling down like they’re tweens on Jägermeister. (“The winner gets a new hip,” writes one commenter. “The only thing there [sic] fighting is gravity ,” writes another).
There’s certainly no lack of similar old-man brawls around the world, including in the U.S. Just last month, two septuagenarians made headlines when they began beefing over samples at a Costco in South Carolina. One of the men lined up to try some cheese only to notice another man had cut in line and cheated his way to the tasty morsels. They encountered each other once more at a cheeseburger station, where the same man cut in line again. The duo exchanged fightin’ words before the line-cutter, a 72-year-old, punched the hat and glasses off the face of the other, 70. (No arrests have been made, whew.)
“Older and wiser,” as the idiom goes, yet men often seem to just get old and not particularly wise when it comes to physical violence. Attacks between elders in nursing and retirement homes continues to be a common and under-reported problem, and for every comically unskilled fight between two willing participants, there exist completely unfunny one-sided beatings and horrific stories of bullying. The lack of oversight at many of these senior centers, coupled with limited research on how frequently and why older men commit such violence, is made more pressing as the bulk of the Baby Boomers moves into the late stage of life.
There are physiological reasons why old men become grumpy and violent, with a main factor being testosterone. Animal studies on the hormone have long associated high testosterone levels with increased dominant and aggressive behaviors — a relationship that can be seen in human men, too, including in stories of “roid rage.” Testosterone production slows and wanes as men age, however, and low levels of the hormone can trigger negative emotions too, including frustration and anger.
“Patients with low testosterone tell me they feel less capable of concentration. And they feel less capable of tolerating the nuances of everyday life — from family, friends, colleagues and customers,” Dr. Ridwan Shabsigh, a urology and men’s health expert, told NBC News. “Whatever you do, you have people around you, and you get irritated sometimes. The ability to tolerate or deal with it is reduced when the testosterone is low.”
Yet other studies on the link between aggression and human male hormones have found only a weak connection, largely due to the power and diversity of our personalities and upbringings. That’s exactly what therapist Andrew Smiler, an expert on men and the author of the textbook The Masculine Self, points to as a major trapping for men who have been conditioned to act tough. In particular, Smiler notes that male Baby Boomers were raised in the post-victory glow of World War II, consuming a steady diet of John Wayne and spaghetti westerns, taught by their fathers who believed that a stoic willingness to battle was key to a young man’s masculine quality.
“One of the things we know about how boys are raised, especially in the generation of men currently around 70, is that they embrace the trope that you can take a conflict outside and settle it ‘like men,’” Smiler says. “Some of these generations of men weren’t taught to talk out emotional conflicts. If you can’t do verbal problem-solving, then you’re gonna have a fistfight. And the winner of that fight is considered to have won the argument, basically.”
Men’s obsession with masculinity and strength can backfire in surprising ways, too. In one 2016 study from the University of Gdansk in Poland, scientists found that merely telling men that they have low testosterone levels increased their tendency toward negative “gender stereotypical behaviors” like getting into physical fights. I was also surprised to learn while reporting an earlier story on male gun ownership that elderly men are a growing segment of the gun market. “I see this from senior citizens, as men get older, they can’t run and they can’t fight, but they have a family to protect,” Larry Hyatt, the second-generation owner of Hyatt Gun Store, told me. “It’s an ingrown idea — this feeling of ‘how can I be a man and protect others’ comes out with age.”
Thankfully, most physical altercations between elderly men — at least the ones that get traffic online — don’t involve firearms, but the dichotomy between men’s anger and their lack of physical strength and coordination is a bizarre sight to witness. No wonder younger male bystanders seem happy to gawk while two old dudes carelessly bang it out in the storage area of a bodega. Or why others cheer the fight on even as a victim is brutalized with hit after hit.
Especially tough is being stuck in a nursing or retirement home, where a man can feel like they’ve lost not just their youth, but independence and their ability to control their environment. Men who ran a business or held a high-power white-collar position, and provided for their families, can be driven to deep-seated frustration in such a place, Smiler says — especially if they keep running into other men or women who drive them crazy.
That’s partly why reform is necessary in elder-care environments, argues Brian Lee, executive director of the nonprofit Families for Better Care. Whether because of the effects of dementia or just bad moods, violence between residents is common, even from people who haven’t had aggressive traits in their past. Improvements to how nursing homes and other facilities operate would go a long way to helping older men stay safe and be more content, Lee says.
“Nursing homes are known to have low staff levels to raise profits. It’s simple custodial care, just checking on people and making sure there’s opportunities to intervene when two residents have altercations. But people often don’t intervene in the aggression,” he notes. “Especially in assisted-living facilities, the staff isn’t trained to know what to do when someone takes a swing.”
Could future generations be gentler in old age? Smiler isn’t sure either way, though he does note that violent crime, especially homicides, has fallen steadily over the course of decades. The challenge is the “cultural trope” in the Western world that old men aren’t capable of doing what they used to do in their youth, and how this weighs on real-world men who struggle with their self-esteem. “That may fit into this idea that some older men choose to not back down and instead prove what they got in a fistfight,” he says.
That’s also probably why it’s so satisfying when the tables turn, as with a clip of an old boxer knocking a younger man flat on his butt during a sparring session, or surveillance footage of a short guy with balding grey hair handing two larger guys an ass kicking of epic proportions. Many things have changed, surely, for these men in their golden years. The willingness to brawl, however, is a habit that sometimes dies hard.