When older people get into a packed London bus or train, as likely as not someone will soon offer them their seat. Both my wife, Rohan, and I are in our seventies and have the tell-tale grey hair, but when that offer comes our responses are very different. While Rohan acknowledges the kindness and accepts with grace, I have been reluctant. For me, acceptance raises a problem; while I don’t want to appear rude, I am not ready to be seen as ‘needy’. In the past each offer would leave me puzzling as to how best I should decline. Then, earlier this year, I started developing a series of seat-offer responses. So far there have been three approaches and, at last, I feel happy.
My first approach was based on the principle that sitting down would be detrimental to my health. There is evidence to show that being upright reduces the risk of developing diabetes, depression and high blood pressure, and that limiting sitting time to no more than 3 hours per day can increase life expectancy by 2 years. With such figures, surely standing should be encouraged.
HIn order to change travellers’ prejudices about my needs and to stop me being badgered, in March I started a campaign. I made button badges and when travelling sported on my lapel the message – ‘I’m standing up for old age’ (see illustration).
I was so sure that my campaign would catch on that I made fifty such badges. In fact, very few people showed any interest; most of those I approached said that they would not wear a label that was rude, that declared the wearer’s age and that might deter people from offering seats to those who genuinely needed help. My one-man campaign quickly fizzled out and I was left with handfuls of badges and feelings of shame.
To make amends, my next approach was one of acquiescence. For several months I gratefully accepted any offers that came my way. It did not feel right but it was easy and, on those occasions when I felt tired, it was actually a welcome relief.
Recently, an important development has allowed me to decline once again, and this time with greater ease. For years now I have stooped and the curve of my back has slowly worsened. So, while in my last year at school I measured 6ft 2 inches (188cm), at a medical check-up a few years ago I had lost almost 3 inches when standing tall – so probably 5 inches when in my more customary slouch mode!
To rectify matters I made an appointment with a physiotherapist who was a back specialist. She agreed that I stooped and then asked if I had any pain. When I said “No” she laughed and sent me packing saying how she only dealt with backs that hurt
Feeling disparaged, I turned for help elsewhere, arranging to have a back-straightening session at my morning gym. I had met Jubi when he helped me resolve a computing problem, but that was only a side interest – his day-job was as a personal trainer. He showed me a series of exercises and wrote down instructions for ten that I should do every day.
Inspired, I have since done them – well eight – regularly and they have worked wonders. I can once again stand with an (almost) straight back, with my chest held forward and with my shoulders no longer slouched. Odd as it may seem, each time I feel my shoulder blades, ribs and vertebra re-aligned as they should be, it gives me a buzz and a sense of well-being. They just feel right.
But there is more. If I stand upright, I am capable of doing something I did in my late teens – I was tall enough then to see over heads in a crowd. So what better place to be standing tall again than in a crowded underground train.
Armed with my new posture, last week I was able to deal with a seat offer in an entirely new way. It was rush hour and when a young woman stood up and beckoned me over, I smiled, thanked her warmly and politely declined. I was, I said, greatly enjoying standing tall and would prefer to stay put. In response, she looked surprised and, possibly, a little hurt.
By chance, we left the train together and I was able to explain my response. She listened attentively, said how my reasoning was most unusual but added that she would tell my story to her grandfather – a once-tall man of my age who now stooped terribly!
Standing straight again is a pleasure. Moreover, by working on my posture I have been able to legitimise my reasons for standing up in a bus or train, and so allowed me to deal better with kind but unwelcome offers of a seat. My exercises have worked in mysterious ways.
For helping with this blog I would like to thank Al, Jubi, Vivien and Rohan.