I have had the privilege of teaching empowerment self-defense to quite a few groups of people who have reached the "age of wisdom." Funny enough, I feel like I learned a lot more from them than I taught, but maybe that is ok.
Mostly, I’ve learned a lot about resiliency. The collections of self-defense tools that people have developed by the time they’ve reached 70 never cease to amaze me.
When I’m working with a group of senior citizens, the feelings in the room are so palpable as we go around and share “success stories.”
Women, while sad for needing to use whatever tools they needed to use to defend themselves, look back on their lives with a clear understanding that “this is what I needed to do and so I did it,” and they enjoy connection to their “inner lioness.”
Men often share a tortured feeling of “I would have…..but I no longer can.” In a self-defense class, they finally have the opportunity to talk about how scary it is to not be sure, or be absolutely sure that they can’t defend themselves. They sometimes have a hard time letting go of all they have lost, which is an interesting paradigm shift for me.
But, as in any self-defense class, we assure everyone that the past stays in the past and what we’re learning in class applies only to the future.
From setting boundaries with neighbors, friends and families, to protecting personal finances, to using a cane as a weapon if need be, self-defense for senior citizens takes many forms.
Gaby Wexler Tanami, an instructor at El HaLev, recently held a self-defense class for Holocaust survivors, and told me that even though everyone in the group had lived through experiences that taught them to defend themselves, the workshop gave them the confidence they needed to deal with life’s new challenges, like feeling confident in their interactions with plumbers or electricians who come to their homes.
She also said she was surprised by how physically capable the participants were, and worked on more strikes and kicks than she’d originally planned.
The participants, especially a very enthusiastic 85 year-old former Krav Maga instructor who was proud to show off her skills, enjoyed yelling “NO,” casting their canes aside and standing tall.
While our courses, in general, focus on the types of violence most prevalent in the community where we are teaching, it is even more so profound when we work with this very special population.
My colleague, Dr. Julie Harmon, executive director of IMPACT Ohio, has done extensive work with senior citizens and points out that, “Sometimes, by practicing walking with their head up, taking breaks to stop and look around, acknowledging those they pass with a hello - can decrease their feelings of vulnerability.”
Like Gabi, Julie’s workshops for seniors focus on “the right to feel safe in your own home,” particularly in her work with groups who live in subsidized housing. Discussions often revolve around how to deal with others in their buildings, whether they be invited guests, trespassers, or drug dealers who have been let it.
Julie is also working on ways to identify elder abuse, including emotional and financial, which is more rampant than you might suspect.
ESD training for the elderly isn’t about turning people in their golden years (right?) into ninjas who can fight off robbers, and terrorists and Oh MY! This is about giving them the tools to deal with the daily infractions into their independence, their boundaries and their personal space that “not-so-good” people use to take advantage.
So, while many classes focus on the physical tools for self-defense, here we focus on the verbal tools, intuition, and the ability to ask for help when they are feeling like something is not ok. And honestly, I think the hardest skill we work on is saying “no” to to a grandchild.
Negotiating danger as a person of age is a totally different set of fears and tools than what we teach a group of 20 somethings, but it is no less important.
Our goal in ESD is to help give our clients, no matter who they are, the tools they need to create a more empowered and safer existence within the confines of their abilities and needs.
Some of the most creative solutions to bad situations that I have learned have come out of my work with people who have the experience of years. Maybe their lives would have been more empowered had they had one of our courses when they were in their 20s, but that can’t be changed.
All we can do is promise to make ESD available to their grandchildren.