Assertiveness at Any Age

Tuesday mornings at 11:00 a.m., I am on the telephone. I am speaking to Rose and to Blanche, to Sylvia and to Norma, to Helen and to Gertrude. All at the same time. The average age of my phone companions is 76. We are discussing how to be more assertive in one’s life. I am serving as the facilitator for this group of senior women, who are speaking from their homes, while I am teaching from my office.

This group phone conversation serves as the “classroom” for a course offered by University without Walls (UWW), sponsored by DOROT, an organization in New York that serves the Jewish elderly and homebound through a myriad of programs including visitors, telephone classes, cemetery visits and holiday programs. My class is one of almost 100 courses offered each year by phone to seniors in the New York metropolitan area and Florida, with plans to expand to New Jersey this Fall.

One of the most frequent areas we explored: acting more assertively with one’s adult children. One woman expressed the fear that if she speaks her mind, her children will limit her contact with the grandchildren. Another woman had difficulty saying “no” to requests to take care of her grandchildren. A number of problems had resulted from borrowing and lending money. Many women wanted to increase the communication and contact between themselves and their adult children, reporting that they often felt a distance which they wished to bridge. Some women expressed concern that their adult children wanted them to live a different lifestyle than they wished to: one woman felt her kids were trying to wear her down from her resolve to remain in her apartment in Manhattan, begging her to move to their home in the suburbs. She wanted to stay put and maintain her independence, her friendship networks and her neighborhood connections. Her daughter wanted the peace of mind of having her elderly mother close by, as well as the benefit of some child-care assistance. We helped this woman express her desires forcefully to her caring children and to remain in her own home.

Many women in the class wanted to be able to express their needs to medical professionals, whether to doctors who rushed them with their questions, or to the home health aides with whom they shared their lives. Women also discussed their frustrations about relationships with friends and neighbors. One woman felt that she was constantly lending things to her neighbor, but that these gestures were never reciprocated: in this case, we noted that the woman had difficulty in asking anyone for what she needed. Another woman was bitter that her friends rarely included her in their plans to go to lunch or the movies; the other women on the phone helped her to learn that at times she needed to be the initiator.

Most of the women felt that being assertive flew in the face of all they had ever known. They all felt that they had not been brought up to express their needs to others, but rather that they had been taught that it was their job to attend to the needs of others at all times. Some worried that becoming assertive would make them selfish or unlovable. As the course progressed, many of the women began to notice that not asserting themselves often led to resentments and dashed hopes. As a whole, these were eager and receptive students. Each week, they came back to report their results with a mixture of pride, surprise and growing comprehension of the power of speaking and acting assertively on their own behalf. They loved the sense of empowerment.