Outsmart the Bad Guy: Practical Street Safety for Older Adults

Updated: Jan 18, 2020

self-defense for seniors
Photo by Brian Donnelly

My eyes flutter open.

My eyelids are the only part of my body that are not stiff and achey.

It's Tuesday morning, the morning after judo.

After over 30 years of marital arts training I’m experiencing slowing down and the need for longer recovery times. All of this has gotten me thinking more and more about how self-defense applies to older people.

The current paradigm of self-defense generally centers on physical skills – the ability to kick and punch your way out of a problem. But just as our physical ability starts to wane – that is when we become even more vulnerable. While most self-defense training is focused on the young and abled-bodied, older women and those with physical disabilities report being more afraid for their safety on public transit than their younger and more able-bodied peers.

So when I was asked to present on street safety at the L.A. Metro Older Adult Transportation Expo, I was excited to share my research with folks who are least likely to show up for a self-defense class.

I had just 30 minutes to equip them with practical tools they could use every day to hopefully avoid going hands on with a threat.

Here are the highlights and some situational awareness games to help older adults stay ahead of the bad guy.

Part One: Identifying Threats

If you’re going to outsmart a bad guy, you’ve got to be able to spot ‘em first. The advice to be situationally aware is often vague leaving folks fearfully looking over their shoulder at anyone as a potential threat. So let’s get specific so that you are discerning, not just simply paranoid.

The cues we are looking for are behavioral. They are not based on physical descriptors such as what they are wearing, the color of their skin, indications of religious affiliation or ethnicity. Its behavior – what they are doing.

The most simple way to identify a potential threat is to observe their behavior long before they ever get to you. How are they treating other people? Are they flouting social norms or laws? That person who is jukin’ people on the street (as shown in the video below) or smoking with their feet up on public transit may just be a jerk and it may not go any further than that. But if they are sending signs of disrespect in general – they very likely don’t have the value of “respecting your elders” most of us have.

Those are easy, simple ways to identify a potential threat at a distance. But how do you know if they’ve locked onto you as a target? The short answer is:

  • Situational proximity

  • Is the threat closing in?

  • Trying not to trigger you?

A personal example and a more in-depth explanation about targeting can be found in this previous article.

situational awareness game

Part Two: How to do Threats Operate?

Bad guys will “interview” a potential target. If the target gives in, cowers or doesn’t enforce a boundary the bad guy will keep pushing until they are ready to make their move.

The interview can take various forms. Below is a partial list from Gavin de Becker's seminal work on the subject, The Gift of Fear. I highly recommend this book for an in-depth guide to de-coding violence.

  1. Use of Charm – more than expressing kindness, but rather using charm as a tool to manipulate you

  2. Forced teaming – the use of “we” to ingratiate oneself into your good graces

  3. Loansharking – giving you an unsolicited gift with the goal of you feeling obligated to reciprocate

  4. Discounting boundaries – ignoring you when you set a boundary. When someone does this with you, they are actually doing you a favor by clearly indicating they don’t respect you and that they don’t value your needs.

When these tactics are being used, the goal is to make you feel obligated so that you are easier to manipulate.

The partial list above is a particularly good one for older adults to be familiar with. Because we’re not just talking potential street crime here – older adults are more susceptible to fraud, telephone scams and elder abuse. Identifying these tactics can keep you a step ahead.

situational awareness game

Part Three: Social vs. Predatory Violence

I once had a participant in Asphalt Anthropology ask me how she could get people to “stop bothering her” when she was using public transit. She was an older woman and very tiny – barely over 5’. She told me people were approaching her because of her age and her size and she wanted me to make her “look mean”.

In an effort to come up with a unique safety plan for her we explored her daily routines, routes and patterns. What came out of that interview was that she was getting hassled when she would correct people for their bad behavior in public.

Rather than her being targeted for predatory violence she was opening herself up for social violence. The difference between the two is that we have much more control of the outcome than we might want to admit when it comes to social violence.

In speaking with her I learned that she assumed people should respect her because she is older. But as discussed above, if someone doesn’t demonstrate respect for others in general, we can’t expect them to hold the same value of “respect your elders”.

According to many officers I’ve spoken with in LAPD, the overwhelming majority of assaults and robberies begin as simple arguments.

deon joseph on self-defense