DIANA, Princess of Wales, in Italy to receive an award for her humanitarianism, risked causing controversy in her acceptance speech yesterday when she pledged to be the ``pensioners' princess'' despite having ditched Help the Aged, among 93 other charities, this year.

The gold medal award to the princess at the Pio Manzu Centre's health care conference in Rimini was said to interpret ``feelings of widespread admiration'' for her and was in recognition of ``her expressions of solidarity and social concern for those in need''.

Earlier, Britain's ``Queen of Hearts'' had been moved by the emotion that had brought tears to the eyes of South Africa's king of heart transplants.

Professor Christiaan Barnard wept as he told of a young black patient who had died after surgery.

Diana looked concerned as Professor Barnard sat down, and reached out a comforting hand to console the surgeon.

In her speech the princess, who dazzled Rimini with a new hairstyle, warned: ``It can be quite easy to become dismissive of the elderly.''

Old age was not a disease, she said. ``To regard old age as a disease is to waste one of our greatest resources. To look down on the elderly as somehow out of touch is to disregard the fount of both wisdom and experience. We would be foolish to do this.

``Far from old age being an illness, I think some of us who are younger may have succumbed to another disease. As Shakespeare put it, `It is the disease of not listening'.''

In July, shortly after the start of her divorce proceedings, Diana dumped 93 charities, including Help the Aged, of which she was patron.

The princess was presented with her award by the centre's vice president, Professor Giandomenico Picco, standing in for the its president, former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, who sent a letter of apology for missing his ``date with Di''.

In what may be seen as a snub, Mr Gorbachev stood up the princess in favour of an appointment to give a lecture in Washington DC.