Who wrote the funny, wise book about a lady who finds new life and a long-lost friend at eighty? What about the story of a woman on a seafaring quest to find her lost husband, or the novel about the rule-breaking residents of Woodlands Nursing Home?
We spoke with bestselling author Joanna Nell about her love of storytelling and her decades of experience as a general practitioner for the elderly.
Ship’s doctor Joanna Nell stood on the dock at Panama City, watching her cruise ship grow smaller as it sailed into the sunset. She was stranded.
Minutes later the ship was growing larger and larger again as Joanna sped toward it in the very last pilot boat. The little boat zoomed through saltwater spray until at last the giant cruise ship loomed above Joanna. She sat, bobbing up and down on the waves, and craned her neck right back to look up the ship’s steep sides.
“You’ll have to climb!” a voice shouted from above.
Over the side tumbled a rope ladder.
The elderly have great stories
More than twenty years and three books later this ship-scaling lady is on the phone to me, telling me how her experiences as a doctor have helped her write her bestsellers. Nautical exploits aside, Joanna is quite introverted, a trait which has helped her gain the insight to write her grand stories about the elderly. “I think I’ve always loved writing and stories,” she said. “When I went into medicine and started practising as a doctor I found that I was really far more interested in the people and their stories than the actual diseases that they had.”
“what I was hearing again and again was this sense that they’d become invisible.”
“When I was training as a medical student, the older patients were the most interesting to me. They were certainly the most patient… But they also had really interesting lives. And I realised that I enjoyed listening to their stories. They were very funny and full of wisdom and had that real stoicism about them as well.”
As a general practitioner Joanna began to see more and more patients in aged care homes and retirement villages, where her ability to listen and observe paid off. “I spent a lot of my working week with older patients, sitting down and listening to what was going on in their lives. Sometimes that was grief or loss, or feeling abandoned by their families, or conflicts between generations within the family.”
“But also, what I was hearing again and again, particularly from my female patients, was this sense that they’d become invisible. I think it’s society, we’re very ageist, actually. And so we tend not to see older people.”
Life goes on at 80
“Her attitude was that her life was shrinking, and There was nothing left to look forward to.”
Enter Peggy Smart, star of Joanna’s first book “The Single Ladies of Jacaranda Retirement Village”. Peggy is eighty, misses her late husband, and worries about her memory. She’s being bullied by her family in various ways, and she’s scared she’ll be put in “a home”. Things look grim until the outrageous Angie moves in and puts spark back into Peggy and the whole retirement village, with remarkable results.
Peggy is Joanna’s “every woman”, with complaints and worries to which many women her age can relate. “I wanted to show that she was perhaps a product of the life that she’d had. She’d been a dutiful daughter, and then a wife and a mother. And she perhaps never really discovered herself… Her attitudes to ageing were that her life was shrinking, and that this was it really. There was nothing left to look forward to.” But of course, Peggy grows beyond her perceived limitations.
Peggy’s attitude changes as she begins to realise who she is, and as we read we find we are seeing through the eyes of a whole person who has had a life, and what’s more, still has one. With Angie’s help she becomes less and less of the old lady that others expect her to be, and has a good time instead. “That was one of the messages of the book,” says Joanna. “That it’s never really too late to have fun and to age gracefully.”
Or disgracefully, as the case may be. Joanna has a fondness for characters who break stereotypes and sometimes rules, whether those characters be the independent Angie of “Jacaranda Retirement Village” or the residents of “The Great Escape from Woodlands Nursing Home”. Ageing, she says, need not be a time of loss and helplessness at the end of life. “Often these messages are sort of internalised I think, as people get older, and so they almost become a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy. And I think it’s very convenient to just sort of hide ageing away.”
“Fiction gives the reader the opportunity to walk in someone else’s shoes.”
Joanna has observed over her career that “the people who seem to do the best, who seem to be the happiest and most robust, and most active, and seem to age the best, are the rule breakers.” She laughs as she recalls Jack, a previous patient in an aged care home. “He just used to love walking around the city.” Jack had lost confidence after being unwell, and family was worried, “but he was still fairly mobile and his mind was very agile.”
“And so I encouraged him to just tell people where he was going. And he put his medals on, and he got the bus directly into the middle of Sydney CBD, had a wonderful day walking around, lots of people stopped to talk to him. And he came back as a different man.”
Joanna emphasises that she encourages people to break rules “only in terms of society’s low expectations of what they are capable of or ‘should’ be doing at a certain age.”
“I think I’m always in a tricky situation… That’s where it comes down to actually respecting people’s individuality and their ability to make decisions for themselves, obviously within reason. I think that having that autonomy taken away is really very difficult.”
This life-affirming approach to ageing, combined with humour, warmth, and mischief, is probably why Joanna’s books appeal to a wide age range. Fan mail from readers of all ages is an encouraging sign for Joanna that society is willing to look anew on its older members.
“I’m really excited about the number of younger readers who read it. Yes, (fiction is) entertainment and escapism, but it also gives the reader the opportunity to see through the eyes of someone else, to walk in someone else’s shoes.”
Joanna’s books are certainly a reminder that everyone is more than what they seem on the surface. If you look behind the wrinkles, you’ll find someone with memories and stories, talents and desires. They may even have scaled the side of a runaway cruise ship.