CEO Musings

What is it about Joans?

September 1, 2017

What is it about Joans?

Such a hardy and unique breed of female with distinctive characteristics (Margarets and Dorothys also have their own genotype and all three predominate hugely in Aged Care — God love them).

Joans are individualists though interestingly share the common characteristic of grey hair — and generally wear glasses (really makes them stand out).

I have known brilliant Joans, brave Joans, beautiful Joans. I have never known a young Joan, save for a Bayside GP who is also a daughter of one of our residents.  She is also   worthy of the above adjectives, so much so that she is flooded with requests for her care and would need a few clones to oblige.  Her name’s rarity in modern times is indicative of fashion and trends.  The name Joan peaked in 1932 with a large cohort of Joans now in their 85th year.

Two amazing Joans I have been privileged to care for had intellects and a grasp of life that demands recording.

Joan Layton was a resident of the “old” Fernhill almost 2 decades ago. She was always a singular woman — a loner in habitation but not  her inner life.  A survivor of one of the great pre-vax sweeps of polio, she was physically disabled and wore a heavy and cumbersome calliper.  Talk was, that before coming (no doubt reluctantly) into care, she was a recluse in her own home.  I often chatted with her and her palest of pale skin belied a person who had     seldom – if ever – been in the sun.  So her final years, spent in her own room (and usually in bed as was her wish) – were comfortably familiar to her.  Surrounded by books and newspapers with TV and radio to hand she was as up to date with current affairs as anyone in the facility (well actually, much more so as she was a colossus amongst the bewildered).

She had no family and those she trusted to enter her inner world were few; staff who attended to every need were acceptable and she received their care with courtesy and gratitude. But bodily ministrations are one thing, baring one’s emotions and opinions another.

We had two glorious rag doll cats at the time. Huge and fluffy with tails and pantaloons like something out of a Dutch Old Master.  They walked so delicately in their cappuccino tinted fuzz coats, tails erect, belly fur almost touching the floor.  A pair of billowy doona’s come to life down the corridor.  They loved Joan and she loved them.  So much so that the cats became her room mates.  Tonianne organised a run so the cats could climb out of Joan’s      window and scamper down to do their business or sniff the ground in a large enclosure.

Joan seldom asked for anything for herself but she ensured that the cats were cosseted and spoilt. They in turn made no complaints and would look up at you if you entered the room, blinking and possibly twitching an ear until they composed themselves comfortably again  usually on Joan’s bed or armchair.

The cats became a source of connection with others. The banter we engage in with pets can often be the middleman in terms of conveying thoughts or moods; and thus it was with Joan.

History, The Arts, Politics and a little gossip (of the rarified sort) would be certain topics to   engage in with Joan.

But she was well into her 80’s and the pain of her disabilities was biting in with much cruelty. She never complained.  Years of living suspended above her sufferings had led to a stoicism almost worrying for us.

I loved to talk to this woman; so Edwardian in presentation, so modern in mindset.

Returning from the weekend one day staff told me Joan was gravely ill and being transferred to the Alfred. I walked towards her room in time to see the paramedics stretcher her out.  She turned her head and I could see the pallor of death “Sandy, Sandy she called and stretched her arm out.  Her eyes were glinting with excitement. I’ve been hoping to see you …. Lucien Freud was written up in the Age –  Did you see it?  Did you see his painting the National Gallery has just purchased?”  Yes I stammered back trying to put elation where I stifled a sob.

Joan was bleeding internally and died the next day; she was dying as she spoke to me then. I can never hear Lucien Freud referred to without feeling a stab of pain and amazement for the loss of a woman so alive to living whilst life itself moved on.

Another Joan who feasted upon life was Joan Lang. At Fairway for a decade, the great matriarch of a large family, Joan was similarly disabled in body but a giant in brain and personality. Learning Indonesian in her eighties with a history of travel and involvement in myriad causes, Joan presided like a benign sphinx over all she surveyed.  Part wise-woman who knew all the staff, their cultural backgrounds and life stories; part hungry sensualist or greedy girl adoring extra tid bits, exotic foods and morsels often provided by Sonia her nurse and chief spoiler; Joan also adored costume jewellery and brightly coloured shawls and caftans.  She would wear these beautiful and exotic pieces and only visible from the waist up in wheelchair or bed  –  presented as a grey haired Frida Kahlo, Sonia always putting her long hair up  –  invariably with a flower or other ornamentation.  Joan’s children are brilliant  –  all successful in Medicine, Academia or The Arts with grandchildren galore.  Some of her blood line live overseas but visited frequently.

As Joan progressed into her late nineties it was impossible to imagine her ever not being with us.  Her intellect was vast and her love of life, conversation, ideas and people was a magnet.

Walking into her room was like visiting a compact museum; books, ornaments, tribal pieces from various countries, a spinning wheel, works of Art and the like. “Clutter” would be a vulgarity to describe this assortment.  The room was like Joan herself, vast in riches and complexity.  (We thought at one stage a rodent had taken up occupancy in a corner but couldn’t find him.  I imagined him to be wearing a cravat and a monocle to fit in with this bohemian  décor).

Joan became very ill towards the end, necessitating a transfer to Sandringham Hospital next door. It was on the weekend of my Birthday and I had told Joan of our plans for a special Restaurant dinner.  I visited her and nearing her bed saw her in profile, so still, so white, a drip in her inert arm, a nose-gastric tube affixed to her face.  I expected no response but she opened her eyes and smiled at me as I sat next to her, “so tell me all about your dinner, what you ate and the conversation ”.

I relayed the degustation meal course by course. “And did the Salmon Gravlax have a   Horseradish cream on the side ….?” she wanted to know.  I felt almost obscene providing  details of a feast whilst the nurse pushed anti nausea medication into her intravenous.  But once again her illness was a nuisance, an impediment to getting on with what mattered – an apprehension of the life around her.

Joan returned to Fairway soon after and died with all her family in attendance.

She didn’t make a century but provided us all with hundreds of wonderful memories.

We have 2 fabulous and zesty Joans at present. One, “Joan P” has us in fits with her jokes and quirky take on life, legs in the air sun baking in the Courtyard. Her teaching background becomes obvious when she holds court on various issues or questions staff with a twinkle in her eye.

The other, “Joan C” is a woman of style and discernment . An accomplished pianist she delights us with spontaneous playing after meals.  Our Grand Piano smiles when Joan sits   to play, for music is a gift to all and Joan is only one of two residents who can actually play.  The other is Phyllis upstairs but her playing is usually heard by folk in House 5.

Now Phyllis – es are another sub species worthy of discussion as are Patricias. (When my Mum – a Patricia – was at Fairway I think we had 3 or 4 of them, all wonderful).

But it’s Joans I’m thinking of now and apart from Joan of Arc it’s worthy to think of the moniker in terms of history and meaning. It is from the Hebrew and means “God’s Gracious Gift”.  This is beautiful and befitting of all of our Joans though when one searches the origin of names there is invariably a positive spin provided – mine means “Helper of Mankind”.  My husband Michael’s name means “ ….who is like God”. So I can absolutely attest to its inaccuracy.

As they are universally complimentary I think its time we had more of a reality check, just to balance things out and be inclusive.

If I had a dear friend whose name meant “Slimy Toad spawned in sin or “Duplicitous twerp …Goblins Gift”, I’d still love them just as much. Wouldn’t you?  As Shakespeare said “… What’s in a name … a Rose by any other name would smell as sweet”.

Joans of course are an exception, their name is not just a label but a special and unique sequencing of DNA!


Cheers to all,