Taking Care of Themselves : Martial Arts Experts Show Other Senior Citizens How to Avoid Becoming Victims


The dozen women, some stooped by age and others slowed by arthritis, watched in amazement during a self-defense demonstration at the Torrance-South Bay Area YMCA.

Their 74-year-old instructor, Helen Carollo, had grabbed her towering assistant by the arm, flung him onto the mat like a rag doll, then stood poised to strike his throat with a chop of her hand until he dropped a wooden knife.

“That’s not very nice,” she scolded, wagging a finger at her “assailant.” The class erupted in laughter.

Carollo, who has earned black belts in two martial arts, teaches other senior citizens how to fend off younger, stronger attackers. She has teamed with her husband, Dominic, 78, to teach self-defense classes in Torrance and Westchester.


Fear of crime is common among the elderly, and it is what prompted most of the women to enroll in the Torrance class. In a recent nationwide survey by the American Assn. of Retired Persons, elderly people ranked crime second only to health issues on their list of concerns, said George Sunderland, manager of the association’s criminal justice services section.

Trudi Farjeon said she enrolled in the YMCA class, which is also open to men, because she feels vulnerable when she walks outdoors or goes shopping without her husband.

“I thought, since I am older, I should try to protect myself if or when someone should try to accost me,” said Farjeon, 68, a Harbor City resident. “I hope that I never have to use it. But if someone did accost me, I think I could do it.”

The class has been good exercise, said Farjeon, a bespectacled woman dressed in a plaid, collared shirt, black tennis shoes and navy blue sweat pants. She said that because the Carollos are senior citizens themselves, she can relate better to their instruction.


“They are very informative,” Farjeon said. “They go over and over (the exercises) and they are very congenial.”

The Carollos met in 1941 at a self-defense class in Oakland. They married and opened their own dojo, or martial arts studio, in the early 1950s. The couple, who have a son, a daughter, two grandsons and two granddaughters, moved to Redondo Beach a decade later, where they have lived ever since.

Helen Carollo, retired for more than 10 years, earned the title of seventh-degree black belt in jujitsu--10th degree is highest--and a third-degree black belt in judo. Dominic Carollo, a retired electronics maintenance foreman, holds a seventh-degree black belt in jujitsu and a fourth-degree black belt in judo.

They have remained active in the martial arts, teaching two classes for senior citizens and assisting instructors in other self-defense classes that cater to all ages.


Teaching, Helen Carollo said, “is like eating a good meal. Afterwards you feel good. We come home sometimes and say, ‘Gee, that was fun. . . .’ It feels good to know that they learn something from us.”

The Carollos instruct their students on how to walk with assurance, comfortable in the knowledge that, if absolutely necessary, they could scratch an assailant’s eyes out, among other things.

“You walk down the street weak, you’ll be picked on,” Helen Carollo told her Torrance class recently. “You walk down the street proud, you’re going to be ignored.”

On this day, there are no men participating in the class. In fact, few men enroll in the self-defense course. Those who do, sign up with their wives.


“I don’t know what it is,” said Helen Carollo. “It might be a little on the macho side. In our own minds, when you think of it, a man takes care of himself.”

As his wife leads the class, Dominic Carollo wanders among the women, both to assess their capabilities and to correct their technique and posture.

“Here’s the worst no-believer in the country,” he says to one woman. She doubts that she can free her arm from the grasp of a partner during one exercise designed to get an attacker off balance.

But Dominic Carollo patiently repeats a series of maneuvers his wife is showing to the rest of the class. He is mindful of the physical limitations of his students.


“Senior citizens haven’t got the flexibility,” he said. “So we have to get them to get (an attacker) off balance and then strike by scratching, using the heel of the hand, the side of the hand. . . . They can’t hit with a fist, they’ll break their hand.”

If a senior citizen walks with a cane, the Carollos will demonstrate how to use it to strike at the groin, smash a foot or jab the stomach of a mugger.

Dominic Carollo concedes that many senior citizens are initially skeptical about whether they can actually use the self-defense techniques.

“Say you have a hard enough time walking and you see judo on TV and guys are just flying around all over the place. You say ‘I can’t do that,’ ” Carollo said. “But we teach them confidence and blows that they can do.”


The mood of the class is serious as Helen Carollo talks about when to fight and when to flee.

“If it’s your life, fight for it,” she said. “If it’s your purse or your car, give it to them. We only want you to fight if it’s your life (at stake).”

Most often, however, the atmosphere is light. Helen Carollo, who barely stands more than 5 feet and weighs 140 pounds, was practicing rolls to prepare for the demonstration with assistant Mike Dingman, 27.

Said Dominic Carollo: “You’re supposed to be 73 years old. You’re not supposed to be bouncing around like that!”


Helen Carollo holds up four fingers. “I’m 74,” she corrects.