Joanna Nell was born in the Midlands and graduated from Oxford University with a medical degree in 1991. In 2003 she moved to Australia where she now works as a GP with a passion for women’s health and care of the elderly. Joanna writes character-driven stories of self-discovery for women of a certain age, creating young-at-heart characters who break the rules and defy society’s expectations.
We talked to Joanna about how she came to write her heart-warming debut, The Single Ladies of Jacaranda Retirement Village.
Tell us what ‘The Single Ladies of Jacaranda Retirement Village’ is about?
The Single Ladies of Jacaranda Retirement Village tells the story of lonely widow Peggy Smart who, on the cusp of her 80th birthday, feels that life is passing her by. After a very minor traffic incident she is worried her adult children are trying to take away her independence and put her in a home. Peggy secretly dreams of inviting her neighbour Brian over for a candlelit dinner, but feels that as a woman of a certain age she has become all but invisible. Life takes an unexpected turn however, when the glamorous Angie Valentine, a woman she hasn’t seen in over 50 years who has a very different attitude to ageing, moves into the same retirement village and sets Peggy on a journey of self discovery. In essence, the book is about love, friendship and community. At its core is the message that it’s never too late to change.
Where did you get the inspiration from to write your novel?
The novel was inspired by the wonderful retirement communities I visit through my work as a doctor, in particular by the stoic wit and wisdom of my older patients for whom I have formed a deep admiration and respect.
Why did you want to write about elderly people in a retirement home?
As a GP, much of my working week revolves around visiting retirement villages and aged care facilities. Far from places of doom and gloom, I have discovered vibrant communities where the residents are thriving and still living life to the full. I wanted to write an uplifting story about ageing in order to dispel many of the myths and stereotypes surrounding old age and open up a broader conversation about growing older in the 21st century, in other words, a celebration of age and not an apology for it. By giving readers of all ages an opportunity to walk in the shoes of an older female protagonist, I was hoping to shine a light on ageism and paternalistic attitudes towards the elderly.
Is your heroine Peggy Smart based on a real person?
Peggy was inspired by a ceramic sculpture I saw several years ago in a local artist’s studio of an older woman dressed in a bathing suit, poised to dive into a chilly outdoor pool. There was a twinkle in her eye and I knew instantly that this ordinary woman – a woman it’s easy to walk past without noticing – had her own unique story to tell. I wanted to make Peggy a realistic and relatable character that the reader could identify with which meant not shying away from the undeniable challenges of an ageing body and mind. Although Peggy is a fictional character, she is essentially a montage of the many real older women I have met over the years.
How important is it not to let age define us and our abilities?
Sadly, we live in a youth-obsessed society, where age is seen as a burden, something to be endured, and the elderly as a drain on precious resources. Yet the reality is that age per se is an unreliable indicator of a person’s abilities. Many seniors are still employed, volunteering or caring for others, not to mention exercising, learning new skills, or making valuable contributions to their local community. I believe it is more important to focus on what we can still do as we age rather than focus on what we can no longer do.
What are some of your top tips for ageing disgracefully?
My number one tip when it comes to ageing well is to think positively. Scientific studies from around the world have shown that when it comes to attitudes about ageing, optimists live longer than pessimists. Indeed having positive beliefs about ageing can actually reduce the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease.
Never be afraid to try something new. For instance, a different hairstyle can be a real pick-me-up and self-confidence booster at any age. New hobbies or activities stimulate the brain and can help to prevent dementia.
Laugh. Whatever tickles you, laughter releases a whole range of feel-good hormones. From endorphins (the body’s natural painkillers) to dopamine and serotonin, which improve mood and well-being, laughter is indeed the best medicine. Laughing reduces muscle tension and lowers blood pressure, while sharing laughter with others leads to social cohesion and bonding.
Keep moving. Walking, swimming, aqua aerobics or belly dancing… whatever takes your fancy. It’s a case of use it or lose it!
Don’t assume sex is for the young. Physical intimacy can be enjoyed at any age, notwithstanding the obvious technical difficulties. Human touch in its various forms is fundamental to a person’s well-being and the foundation of a healthy relationship.
Enter our competition to win a copy of The Single Ladies of Jacaranda Retirement Village. Email us or tweet with #JacarandaLadies tagging @HodderBooks and @ReadingAgency telling us why you’d like to read the book.
Read Joanna’s article about ageing disgracefully on the Bookends website.