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.

11 thoughts on “A Tall Order

  1. It has delighted me to read this. A lot more people need to be aware of the possibilities and advantages of re-alignment. I wouldn’t mind betting you get fewer seat offers with your revised posture.

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    1. Dear Andrea, So far, my posture seems to have made no difference in terms of numbers of those offering their seats. It has, however, as I say, made me feel more comfortable and given me a legitimate/amusing excuse. Love, Joe

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  2. And credit of course goes to Jubi (our mutual friend) who with a tailor made excercise programme helped put my wife, then in a wheelchair, back on the road to recovery. Something that a host of physios, chiropractors and other professionals had been unable to achieve, over several years!

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  3. A general comment – Since writing this blog I have become aware that there are those who believe that one should never decline the offer of a seat as it risks putting people off standing up for older people in the future. I feel that my declining with a smile, a thank you and an explanation might be seen as refreshing.

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  4. We seem to be structured to experience pleasure when we help or give to others. It has survival value for the species.
    You can get a kick out of stopping at an intersection to let a mother struggling with small children cross over, or making eye contact and smiling with a few appreciative words to the girl at the checkout, or if you have to leave the café first, paying for your friend’s coffee too, or giving your seat to someone on the bus.
    These little things can warm your day. So by accepting the other person’s little gift aren’t we really giving them a gift too?

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    1. Dear Robert, Many thanks for these points. In this case, I don’t see the offer of a seat as a gift, more some helping hand. With regards to seats in trains, for example the conversation almost always starts with the question “Would you like a seat”. It is for me to thank and say politely “Yes” or “No”. The offerer should expect no more. Indeed, simply making the offer should be pleasing enough. The relationship reminds me of how one offers help to a disabled person. I now make a very careful approach and try to discover what might be wanted. Grabbing hold of a blind person by the arm and marching them across the street is now so obviously totally unacceptable. Love, Joe

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      1. It is with enormous sadness that I have to announce that writing the letter above was one of the last things Robert did. I have known him for over fifty years and although he lived thousands of miles away in Australia he was a marvellous friend – witty, wise, warm and generous. I went to Australia in July this year in part to say my goodbyes just in case he died.. In fact he suddenly died this morning – peacefully and in no pain. Part of him believed that he would go on for ever. In my mind, he will. RIP Robert, love, Joe

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  5. What a beautiful Article Joe. It was and is my pleasure helping people stand, move and exercise better.

    Regarding posture correction I think some credit definetly goes to my mother, Moyra Ashford who I can still hear in the back of my head “postura” whenever she cought me slouching at breakfast.

    Thanks Al for the comment too , Genessa was one oa lovely success story. Joe meantions me helping him with his tech stuff and this is definetly because of you, funny thing life. ✌🏽

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  6. Firstly, a gentle hug dear Joe… I know how much Robert meant to you.

    I’ve recently been travelling on the tube and been offered a seat by ‘gentlemen’; hopefully it’s not because I look older and in need, but because I am a woman… old fashioned perhaps/probably. Your blog made me think why as a feminist am I not offended?

    I offer my seat to anyone who I think might need it, whether the offer is taken or not and btw I always decline… it’s always with a smile and an acknowledgement of kindness.

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  7. Dear Carolyn
    By asking why exactly do people offer their seats your comment adds an important dimension. I now realise there must be so many reasons for the offer and usually we never know what is the exact motivation – fascinating. When I am next in a train or bus I will start puzzling over that too. Love, Joe.

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