Lifestyle

Sunday 21 September 2014

The oldies with cash under the mattress might just be right

The opinions of senior citizens were once revered as the wisdom of the ancients. These days, however, they are more likely to be dismissed as the ramblings of the senile. Ironically, it is often would-be friends of the elderly who are guilty of the most flagrant condescension.

In the Dáil last week, Mattie McGrath attempted to take up the cudgels on behalf of the nation's pensioners but wound up causing more injury to their cause. The Independent Tipperary deputy raised an issue of genuine seriousness: the recent spate of burglaries on old people living alone. Unfortunately, he did so in a manner that came dangerously close to blaming the victims.

Many pensioners, McGrath insisted, are gripped by a "fear" that stops them lodging their money in banks. As a result, they keep large stashes of cash in their homes – thereby providing a bountiful incentive for thieves.

Exaggerated tales of fortunes stuffed beneath the mattresses of the codgerati have abounded for generations. Nevertheless, there is considerable anecdotal evidence to suggest that growing numbers of old people are abandoning the banking system, and making alternative financial arrangements.

It is a mistake to characterise this retreat as the product of fear or ignorance. In many cases, the decision is taken for rational, even prudent reasons. Old people aren't necessarily smarter than anybody else but they do know a thing or two about survival – having done it for longer than the rest of us.

If pensioners have turned against banking, they are merely returning the compliment. Banks are reducing the services they provide to everybody but the zeal with which electronic banking is being promoted at the expense of personal contact seems custom-built to alienate the elderly.

The censorious attitude adopted towards old people who shun banks is as two-faced as it is wrong-headed. It is especially rich when one considers that the refuseniks are simply doing what many advocated we all should do in the immediate wake of the banking crisis.

Back then, there was much lofty talk among the chattering classes about the need for a social revolution against the casino gamblers who had caused the global crash.

One mooted uprising was led by no less a revolutionary than Eric Cantona, the philosophising French footballer. A self-styled man of action, with a history of letting his feet do the talking on and off the pitch, Cantona proposed that bank customers everywhere close their accounts on a specified date. The resulting chaos, he argued, would force the transformation of global banking.

Predictably, the Cantona-led wheeze came to naught, as did a multitude of similarly fanciful rallying calls. For all our ranting about the evils of retail banks, most of us are too reliant on their services to even consider living without them. The convenience provided by the technological world is undoubtedly liberating, but we have yet to acknowledge the extent to which it can also be enfeebling.

Aggravated burglaries of the elderly are an outrage, but we should resist any temptation to hold victims responsible for the crimes committed against them. If old people want to live without banks, they should be entitled to do so. In fact, they should be congratulated for their resolve. Rather than greeting every idea advanced by our elders with a trivialising 'there, there', there are times when the more appropriate response is a resounding 'hear, hear'.

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