West Fargo school examines bullying in senior citizens

(Valley News Live) Many parents often worry about their kids being bullied—but at what age does it stop? As part of our “Battle against Bullying” initiative, we visited one West Fargo middle school that's working to combat bullying—but for an older generation.

Don Hogenson is 84 years young. He lives in his own apartment at the retirement community, Touchmark at Harwood Groves, in Fargo.

"Bullying I suppose could be a problem,” Hogenson said. “It's not a problem here at Touchmark."

Early Monday morning, he visited Liberty Middle School, where seventh graders presented their research. They'd been working on problem-solving for certain companies.

Michael Stecher worked at Touchmark for five years prior to teaching at Liberty Middle School. He says that inspired him to choose the retirement community as his students' subject.

"Interestingly enough,” he said, “I saw a ton of connections between education and a retirement community."

One connection he saw from working in the dementia unit? Bullying.

"When bullying occurred, I don't think it was malicious,” Stecher said, “it was more just misunderstanding the situation. Thinking that Alzheimer's is catchable, and maybe just having some empathy of what they're going through."

Stecher says he approached companies like Touchmark and asked what was on the bottom of their list of things they wanted to accomplish.

“And let’s throw it at the kids and see if they come up with something great,” he said. “And if they don’t, you’re no worse off, right?”

Touchmark’s life enrichment and wellness director, Anne-Marie Fitz, says one thing she threw at the students was culture in the retired community.

"We wanted to kind of be ahead of that curve,” Fitz said. “We don't see bullying necessarily as an issue, but in case it should come up, we don't want to have some sort of a reaction, we want to have a plan in place."

But the students' perspectives of the folks they observed was different.

"Everyone there was very nice,” seventh grader, Claire Upton, said. “I think it's just they form cliques just like middle school, and so once they have a clique and you're friends with people, you start to close other people off and I think that's what they mean by bullying, I guess."

Students introduced kindness cards to the retired community as one of the solutions.

Fellow seventh grader, Alexis Curry, says the experience was eye opening.

"When I got back to school,” she said, “I looked everywhere and I saw the cliques kind of like that formed, but I also saw people being nice, and I was like, if everyone could do that, there would be no more kind of cliques, but there would be more friends and no more probably bullying."

Touchmark community member, Clark Tufte, says he didn't realize bullying was one issue the students were looking at, until he saw the final presentation.

"There's no bullying here,” Tufte said. “But you know, we could fall to impatience when people don't hear the first time, when people don't see the first time, or when people ask a question, they just asked it five minutes ago and now they ask it again."

But he says, thanks to the students, even he came away with a new understanding.