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Pulling the 'Old Person Card'
Thought for the Fortnight
I was on the phone to a major department store in London from which we had just bought a new television (previous one bought in 2006, so it was well time).
We thought we might need an additional part, but we were a bit unclear, so I had phoned and asked for the ‘technical department’. They couldn’t help. I was told we needed ‘customer service’ and the call was transferred. The new advisor told me that I was right in the first place, so I phoned back, got a different advisor and finally obtained the requested information.
In other words, I got the usual run-around that one expects more from government (central or local) departments than from commercial enterprises.
I was tired (partly recovering from Covid) and fed up. With each discussion, at some point, I mentioned “My husband and I are in our 80s. This is really too technical for us and we just need some help.”
In other words, I pulled the ‘old person card’.
And each time, it seemed to work. There was a softening in the voice, a greater appearance of the wish to help and a concern that it should be sorted. The issue wasn’t sorted any faster as far as I can tell, but I gained sympathy and general helpfulness.
The old person card
The existence of a special pass applying to old people is not something that is much discussed.
Yes, we know that if someone has cancer, they can throw this into some conversations and get additional sympathy. And sometimes additional services when they would otherwise be refused. This is often called ‘pulling the cancer card’ and makes sense up to a point.
But cancer is something that only some people get – and everyone tends to feel that people with cancer deserve priority in many circumstances. It does raise questions, of course, of whether there should equally be an ‘excessively shy person card’ or, indeed, a ‘chronic diarrhoea card’ or all the other conditions one might be living with, but I will let that pass.
The thing about being old is that it comes to us all and therefore, it could be argued, does not single us out for special attention as such. Moreover, emphasising such a ‘condition’ only serves to turn old age into something that deserves sympathy, whereas my general view is that it is a lovely time of life (see my book arguing this case).
I felt there was something inappropriate about using it to attempt to gain some sort of special attention. Indeed, it reinforces prejudices (in the sense of ‘pre-judgements’) about age that I would prefer to dispel.
But many people would argue that old people are frail and less able to cope with modern life and therefore it is reasonable to ask for the extra mile in our favour.
What is old?
Perhaps the question comes down to what do we mean by old?
In most societies these days, the specification of ‘old’ begins at 60 or, at most, 65. Perhaps there would be – and should be – less sympathy for anyone pulling the ‘old’ card when he or she was a mere 61.
As we live longer, the concept of ‘old’ crosses a wider span. I was 61 twenty years ago. So what about 70? Or 80? Is it OK then?
My friend who is in her late 90s – and has all her marbles – declares that no one is old until they are 90. If so, I had no right to pull the old person card.
Moreover, I am hale and healthy (and stand on my head, as you know), so why should I expect more sympathy because of my age?
It is a genuine question. The truth is that I don’t expect more sympathy in most circumstances – queueing on my feet for an hour might be different. But we all use whatever ammunition we can muster to get a desired result.
Was I right to do so?
A version of this article was initially published by SixtyandMe.com