LATELY people have been asking me to help them in supermarkets, at weekend markets, and even, a week ago, while I was walking along a footpath. Nothing particularly incommoding, although the concrete pot an elderly woman asked me to move from one side of her front path to the other did jam a finger against another pot. The most common imposition is the request for me to be so kind as to reach down an item on the top shelves of a supermarket.

I wonder if it’s that I’m a little older than I used to be when people didn’t ask me so often to help. It may that at a certain age men appear to become more harmless, more aware that they need to try harder to be useful. And I must say that I am delighted to help.

June Porter says that ‘‘gentlemen of a certain age’’ do seem more helpful, although she has found that young people too are happy to help. Mrs Porter, who’s in her late 70s and lives at Warners Bay, wrote in yesterday’s Herald that the kindness of strangers never failed to delight her, and she assured her fellow senior citizens that they need only ask for help when they’re out and about. For many years, she tells me, she wouldn’t ask for help, and she says it is her new willingness to ask and the willingness of others to help that helps her live independently.

What sort of help? An escort across a busy road, getting items from supermarket shelves she can’t reach, extracting the coin from the coin-operated release of shopping trolleys.

We’re happy to help to a point, aren’t we! But which point? Fetching something from a supermarket shelf is well short of the point of refusal, and while helping an old lady across the road will be a good deal further along the scale the possible ramifications of not helping would push the point further back. Would you stand with her to tell her when her bus was the one pulling up at the stop?

But we don’t help many people who need our help more than Mrs Porter does. We don’t help the fellow in filthy clothes lying flat on the bench in the park, and if you do you are a notable exception. Perhaps it is that we don’t know how to help, but we could ask or offer. I think it is because we don’t have empathy with these people whereas we have empathy with an aged person asking for help because we have aged family members.

I am as guilty as anyone else of not helping people with whom I have no empathy, and so it was out of character a year ago when I left my car to help an old man who’d crashed to the ground when he tried to step onto the pavement. I’d watched him cross the road unsteadily and assumed he was drunk, which creates in me a certain empathy I suppose. ‘‘It’s J-Jeff C-Corbett!’’ he cried, in fright I thought, as I took him by the arm. He was an old swimming acquaintance who’d developed an illness affecting co-ordination, and I was relieved I’d put a lack of empathy aside for once.

Do you ever refuse a request for help? Do you, like me, fail to offer? And how much help is too much?

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