Q&A with Jo Owens, author of A Funny Kind of Paradise

Jo Owens became a nursing home aide in Canada out of a need for money, and came away with her calling. And from that experience, the pain and the human glory, came her debut novel A Funny Kind of Paradise, set in a Canadian nursing home.

The Vancouver Sun wrote “Owens…captures the skill and tenderness of caring for someone at the end of life in direct and unvarnished prose…Each [care aide] …is richly drawn and complex… [and the novel] serves to illuminate a vital profession that has been rarely documented in fiction.”

“Her writing is richly informed by her 20 years working as a care aide in Victoria, British Columbia,” said interviewer Len Fishman, head of the University of Massachusetts Gerontology Institute. And their conversation continues from there. Thanks to Taryn T. Hojlo for the interview transcription.

Author Jo Owens

LF: Let’s start by asking why you became a care aide and what’s kept you in that profession for 20 years?

JO: Actually, desperation drove me there. Much like Molly [a character in the book], an aide suggested that I take this job and that I would be good at it, and I absolutely needed money. That got me over the initial stages when it was terrifying to be doing something so new. What keeps me at it is that I have a calling for this work. I definitely ended up in the right place.

LF: The book’s narrator is Francesca, or Franny. She’s in her late sixties, and a stroke has left her unable to move, walk, talk, or eat, but Franny’s cognition is completely intact. Tell us more about her, and let’s start with you reading a passage.

JO: [reads from A Funny Kind of Paradise – youtube link]

“Franny says, ‘The stroke has left me emotionally labile, and the feelings I’ve struggled so hard to contain (or at least disguise in shrouds of anger) are naked for all the world to see. I literally lack the muscular strength to suppress them.

But here is the gift. I don’t care. I don’t care! My right hand is useless, I can’t speak and more people have seen my bare ass in the last year than if I was a streaker at the opera, because I need my diaper changed, for God’s sake. Do you think I care if you see me cry?’”

LF: Tell us a little more about her.

JO: Francesca was a strong, independent woman who ended up raising her two children on her own. She’s a home-based small business accountant, and she kind of came at life as though…if you attacked it with hammer, you’re going to get the job done. That’s not necessarily the best way to parent children, so like everyone else, she has her own baggage and things to think about. Originally, she was the kind of person who would say to herself, as you often hear people say, “If that happens to me, I would rather die.”

LF: She recalls a time when she accompanied her son’s class to a nursing home around Christmas time. When they leave, she tells him, “I’d rather be dead than have to live in a place like that.” Later she thinks, “I changed my mind when I came here.” What changed?

JO: First of all, I think that the will to live is extremely strong. We think that we can’t tolerate this, but it’s amazing what humans can get used to and even learn to embrace. Partly, that’s what’s going on, but also Franny was fortunate to end up in a good facility where she has loving care and she’s still engaged in life. She enjoys watching the care aides that work around her and gossip freely in front her because Franny can’t repeat what she’s hearing. She thinks about her children and she’s still engaged with her son who comes to see her. There’s enough in her life to make her life meaningful. This is my experience at work. When suffering becomes acute, residents do say they’d rather die. And we do hear that. But generally speaking, I find that people want to live. And they continue to want to live. Much longer than we’d think.

LF: Franny’s got issues – fear and anger are her “left and right crutches” as she puts it – and she’s really trying to work through them. Have you seen residents that you’ve cared for grow emotionally as she does?

JO: Absolutely. Absolutely I have seen people change and grow. We do. Our situations force us to. It was the famous psychologist, Karen Horney, who said, “Life itself remains a very good therapist.” Things happen. We’re forced to change, and life doesn’t stop because you’re forced into care. You’re still going to be changing. For Franny personally, I used my imagination obviously to create what’s happening to her, but as she thinks about what is meaningful in life, thinks about what she can change and what she can’t change – particularly with regard to her son, her missing daughter, and how she behaved in the past – as new residents come into her life, she is adjusting her thinking and she’s moving along in her mind, as people do. And yes, I’ve seen that in care.

LF: So, as you’ve mentioned, Franny’s brain is sharp and because she can’t talk the aides are actually more willing to speak their minds in front of her, even confide in her. What were you hoping we’d learn, through her, about the inner workings of a nursing home?

JO: One of the reasons I set this novel in a five-bed ward is because I wanted to be able to show Franny listening to people talking all the time…I wanted people to see how human your aides are…Every one of your [aides] comes with their own set of baggage. And I wanted to show some of the things that the care givers are trying to balance, some of the things that they have on their plate. The struggle that is part of life, trying to triage six to eight – or in worse scenarios, 12 to 14 – residents. Who eats what, who do you go to first? How can you give everyone good care, not just the ones that can speak up and demand it, but also the ones that are immobile and deserve just as much of your love and attention? I wanted to do that in a way that wasn’t completely preachy, and boring and I really hope that I achieved that goal because what happens in [nursing homes], in that private little world, is frequently not seen, and I wanted to show it.

LF: In Franny’s world, licensed nurses, whether it’s LPNs or RNs, are distant figures and doctors are almost entirely absent; it’s all about the aides. Is this what it looks like on the inside?

JO: I’m sure I showed quite a bit of bias there because I am a care aide, so I think it’s all about me [laughs]. But, in terms of the bulk of time caring, aides are the faces that the residents are going to see the most. I see my people every day, whereas the doctor might see you every two weeks if you have a problem, less if you don’t. The LPNs are going to see you every day also to give you your pills and if you have a dressing change, you’ll see them a little bit more. The RN, as I mentioned to you before, at my facility the RN has one hundred people. They’re going to deal with problems. So, it may be very difficult to even know their name. The care aide is the person that they see. I did an interview with a person in Toronto whose father was in care. He told me that the care aides became his father’s family. Even though I only know a small portion of my resident, the part that they are now – the whole iceberg of their previous life is unknown to me except for a little bio that might be done by a social worker or a family member – I have this tiny little part of this person, right? But they’re still mine. I have them every day. I know how they want their socks pulled up – do you want a little space at the end, or do you want them nice and snug? Do you want your tea spun like this or like that? They’re mine.

LF: I want to ask you about families of nursing home residents, especially those that visit frequently. What qualities do staff most appreciate?

JO: The first thing that’s coming to my mind, Len, is forgiveness. Maybe I’m only speaking for myself, but I want to be forgiven for my imperfections. I’m going to do the very best that I can, and sometimes it’s going to feel like it’s not enough because sometimes it’s not enough – I just run out of time. I forgot to bring your husband down for his visit, which is now going to be downstairs in the village square, or I’m not able to brush your family member’s teeth, their hair isn’t…Yeah, I want to be forgiven for the fact that I can’t do a perfect job. Maybe other care aides would speak differently.

LF: Two aides in your book are talking about the difficult daughter of one of their residents. The mother is pretty difficult, too. And one aide sums up her philosophy as follows, “If we only looked after the people who deserved kindness, it’d be a skinny job.” This is a telling commentary on the challenge of being a good caregiver, so tell us about it.

JO: This reminds me of a fridge magnet I once saw that said, “The staff are human and will react unpredictably when abused,” as opposed to being a robot. Every healthcare worker has a right to be treated like a human being. We have little signs in our elevator saying that if you don’t treat the staff with respect, you will be required to leave. But the people that I’m working with are emotionally labile and sometimes they have difficulty controlling any number of their emotions, whether it’s anger or frustration or – sometimes they yell at us, sometimes they hit us.

LF: In recognizing the time that we’re living in, in the U.S., residents account for about 40 percent of COVID deaths nationally. In Canada, the percentage is even higher. It seems to me that this hasn’t caused as much of an outcry as one might expect. What do you think?

JO: So, this is a question I was asked in the NPR interview and so I gave it a lot of thought, Len, because I had difficulty answering it. And here’s the reason I had difficulty: I do not want to contribute to our phobia of death. There is a time when it is good to die. At the same time, how we treat the more vulnerable members of our population during a pandemic is a measure of our integrity as a society. It’s really important not to get the idea that any group in our society, whether it’s their age, their ethnic background, their financial worth, their sexual orientation, that that group is in any way disposable, because that’s the kind of thinking that Hitler had. It is not acceptable.

LF: What do you want people to know about your job?

JO: Well, I was hoping that with my book I would be able to increase empathy for the people that live and work in care. But what would I want them to know? We’re here and we’re alive and just as important as anybody else – really that’s the only message.

“Older Adults and COVID-19: Implications for Aging Policy and Practice”

New webinar explores the impact of the pandemic on older adults

View the full slide set here, and a video recording from the 2.5 hour webinar is available here.

Edward Alan Miller, Gerontology Department Professor and Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of Aging & Social Policy (JASP), led the webinar “Older Adults and COVID-19: Implications for Aging Policy and Practice” based on a JASP special issue and book of the same title. The February webinar drew more than 500 registrants from around world to learn about the ramifications of the pandemic for older adults and their families, caregivers, and communities.

Edward Alan Miller

Editor-in-chief Edward A. Miller

“We are extremely gratified with how the webinar turned out, drawing participants and viewers from throughout the United States and globally,” said Miller. “It illustrates how the problems and issues brought to the fore by the pandemic will continue to reverberate well beyond the present day to the years to come.”

The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has prompted an outpouring of scholarly work on the effect of the pandemic on various populations. Older adults – as well as their formal and informal caregivers – have received a disproportionate share of the pandemic’s impacts. Direct exposure to the virus led to a higher rate of hospitalization and death among older populations, particularly in nursing homes and other congregate living environments. This reality prompted mandates meant to mitigate the virus’ effects on older adults and which, in turn, led to unintended consequences, such as increased social isolation, enhanced economic risk, delays in receiving medical treatment and other supports, and latent ageism.

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Boston’s Older Population: Increasing in Racial Diversity, but Quality of Life is Shaped by Racism, Discrimination

A new report from UMass Boston identifies aging equity among Boston residents

The number of Boston residents aged 60 and older has increased by more than one-third in the last eight years and more than half of older residents are persons of color. However the experiences of these older residents differ substantially depending on race, ethnicity and gender, and challenges their abilities to thrive.

A new report, “Aging Strong for All: Examining Aging Equity in the City of Boston,” by researchers at the University of Massachusetts Boston, documents disparities across three dimensions that impact quality of life — economic security, health, social engagement — and identifies opportunities for stakeholders to ensure an environment in which “aging strong” is possible for all Boston residents. Jan Mutchler

“It has never been more critical to strategically pursue greater equity in the aging experience of Boston residents,” says Jan Mutchler, PhD, director of the Center for Social and Demographic Research on Aging at UMass Boston, a professor in the Department of Gerontology and one of the study’s authors. “The numbers of older adults are increasing and stakeholders share a growing recognition of the powerful ways in which inequity, racism, and discrimination shape health outcomes and the aging experience, amplifying the need to examine and remediate disparities in aging.”

The report identifies substantial disparities across racial and ethnic groups, such as:

Economic security

  • Poverty rates are especially high among Asian Americans and Latinos, and more than one-third of these residents age 60 or older live in households with incomes below the federal poverty line.
  • Sizable gaps differentiate racial groups. For example, while a similar share of non-Hispanic White, Black and Native American people aged 66 or older receive Social Security benefits, percentages receiving Social Security are considerably lower for Latinos and Asian Americans.
  • Housing costs in Boston place a heavy burden on older residents and half or more of renters age 60 or older pay more than 30% of their incomes for housing. Fewer homeowners bear such a heavy cost burden for housing, but older Black, Latino and Native American homeowners are at amplified risk for being cost-burdened.

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Pension Rights

Help is available to secure your pension

Whether your retirement is close at hand or years away, you’re likely counting on savings and other income sources you’ve maintained to provide you with a comfortable and secure life after working for years. If you’re counting on a pension, take steps now to make certain it’s in place and available when you decide to retire.

A defined benefit pension is a retirement plan that may provide monthly income for the rest of your life. Pensions are sponsored by your employer and provided to you based on your years of service, compensation and other factors. Unlike a 401(k), the employer bears all of the risk and responsibility for funding the pension plan. But, employers can make mistakes.

Take the case of William, a Pension Action Center client.

William worked for a company outside of Chicago off and on for about 20 years. He had two breaks in service that resulted from factory-wide reductions in force. After the first layoff, he was recruited back, because the factory needed someone with his specialized skills. When he was laid off again, he had worked about 12 years in total, and was fully vested in the company’s pension plan.

In the mid-1980s, the company that owned the factory decided to close it down permanently. The company again recruited William back to help with the closure. He understood that his brief return would increase his pension benefit at retirement.

But the employer made a big mistake. When personnel matters were wrapped up for the remaining factory employees, William’s service credit for his pension was recorded based on his short return to his employer to close down the factory. The employer did not credit him with the 12 years of service from earlier in his career. As a result, William was not included on the list of employees who had earned a pension. Continue reading

Book Investigates the Pandemic and its impact on Older Adults

Journal of Aging and Social Policy special edition examines scope,
impact and lessons drawn from Covid-19 for older adults

A special double-issue of the Journal of Aging and Social Policy (JASP) that focused on Covid-19 has been released as a book. “Older Adults and Covid-19: Implications for Aging Policy and Practice” provides 28 articles written by leading gerontology researchers. The authors offer perspectives from around the globe on a host of issues surrounding the virus and its impact on older adults, their families, caregivers, and communities.

Edward Alan Miller

Editor-in-chief Edward A. Miller

Originally published in June 2020, this issue’s release as a book by Taylor & Francis Publishing indicates that the critical questions raised and the policy changes proposed to protect this vulnerable population moving forward deserve continued attention.

“This book is important because nearly everything addressed in the special issue six months ago is still relevant today which reflects poorly in our response as a nation,” said Edward Alan Miller, PhD, a professor at UMass Boston and editor-in-chief of JASP.

As Miller points out in the book’s introduction, older adults have been hit particularly hard by the pandemic. Exposure to the virus has resulted in older adults dying in disproportionately higher numbers, especially in long-term care facilities. Government-mandated actions to lessen the impact of the virus on older adults have had adverse consequences such as increased social isolation, separation from family members, enhanced economic risk, and challenges getting basic needs met. Continue reading

Reach Out Massachusetts Mobilizes Communities to Combat Social Isolation

The desire to spend time alone is a natural and even healthy urge. But, seeking time alone and social isolation, are not the same.

Social isolation — defined as a lack of social connections — is considered a serious public health risk and can impair one’s physical and mental health. Older adults are at increased risk for social isolation because they are more likely to have lost a spouse and close friends, live alone, suffer from a chronic illness, or have limited mobility.

To combat this devastating public health problem, the Gerontology Institute at UMass Boston and AARP Massachusetts have created a resource guide highlighting ways in which many Massachusetts cities and towns are already addressing social isolation in their communities. The guide is the first completed project of the Massachusetts Task Force to End Loneliness & Build Community. The task force is co-led by Sandra Harris, president of AARP Massachusetts, and Caitlin Coyle, Ph.D., the lead author of the resource guide and a research fellow at the Gerontology Institute at UMass Boston. Continue reading

Remembering Frank Caro: Inspiring Leader and Key Figure in Development of UMass Boston Gerontology Program

Frank CaroBy Len Fishman and Jeffrey Burr

The field of gerontology has lost a pioneer with the death of Professor Emeritus Frank Caro, an inspiring and beloved figure at UMass Boston. He died on October 2, at age 84. Frank was an architect of one of the world’s most influential gerontology programs. More than that, he was its heart and soul.

Frank wore many hats at UMass Boston, a former director of the Gerontology Institute and chair of the Gerontology Department in the McCormack Graduate School of Policy and Global Studies. He also helped found the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at UMass Boston and the Management of Aging Services Master’s program.

Frank is remembered as a consummate scholar-administrator in the field of higher education. He guided the Gerontology Department through its early years with a steady hand and a determination to make its educational programs excel. He deftly mentored many doctoral students and junior faculty members during his years on our campus. Beyond his many great professional achievements, he was known for his kindness, thoughtfulness and humility. Continue reading

The Makings of a Mentor – Meet Ellen Birchander

This article originally appeared on the UMass Boston News web page.

We all take different paths in life and, if we’re lucky, we have mentors guiding us along the way. As an undergraduate psychology major, 20-year-old Ellen Birchander was on track to fail her journalism class unless she completed an upcoming article assignment. She was directed by her professor to open the yellow pages and interview someone listed as a contact in the first advertisement she saw, which happened to be Greater Lynn Senior Services. Her assignment not only received an A but led to the first job she’d have in the field of aging.

Out of this serendipity came a passion for the work of aging that developed and evolved over the next 40 years. Birchander went on to lead the development of programs and delivery of services for the Executive Office of Elder Affairs, where she served as Assistant Secretary for Programs. Now, after making a career transition from public affairs to public education, she is teaching, mentoring, and co-directing the Management of Aging Services (MAS) Graduate Program in the Department of Gerontology. Continue reading

UMB Gerontologists Tell Legislators Research, Preparation Keys to Helping Older Adults Deal with Impact of COVID-19

Len Fishman, Elizabeth Dugan and Jan Murtchler

Left to right, Gerontology Institute Director Len Fishman, associate professor Elizabeth Dugan and professor Jan Mutchler. Fishman, Dugan and Mutchler appear in photos below.

UMass Boston gerontologists offered legislators two suggestions for state government in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic: Help researchers better understand what has happened to older adults and get elder Massachusetts residents prepared for a more challenging future.

Gerontology Institute Director Len Fishman, associate professor Elizabeth Dugan and professor Jan Mutchler all appeared individually at a May 15 virtual listening session hosted by the legislature’s Joint Committee on Elder Affairs. They joined a wide range of advocates, policymakers and other members of the public to describe the impact the pandemic has had on older adults and what state government should do to help. Continue reading

Beth Dugan on COVID-19 in Aging Populations: “Older People are Part of the Solution”

This conversation with Gerontology associate professor Elizabeth Dugan was conducted by the McCormack Graduate School and  first appeared on the UMass Boston News web page.

Q: Can we start by talking a bit about the aging population in Massachusetts and how it’s similar or different from other places facing the COVID-19 crisis?

Beth Dugan:  I would say overall, we have more positives to work with. Here in Massachusetts, we have more than a million people who are 65 and older, so we have more older people than other states. And one thing that’s interesting to think about is that longevity is a new experience in terms of human development. We’re about the first or second generation where most people could expect to live to old age. Continue reading