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Visionary Eldercare

Santa Barbara News Press
Frank Newton

In 27 years of hands-on work with elders, Joan Englander of Ojai has gained and nurtured a revolutionary insight into caring for seniors. Hers is a sensitive vision for holistic eldercare that strives, as she says, “to find joy in the midst of grief or pain.” To our good fortune, Joan has captured and distilled her vision into a newly published book titled Joy in the Evening of Our Lives.
“Our medical system doesn’t allow us to deeply care for people,” Joan emphasizes, “It isn’t enough to only give physical care. We need to create holistic care that considers the whole person – body, mind and spirit.”

Joan’s book opens us to a more sympathetic and respectful understanding of the elderly. It is not a depressingly dry text that delineates symptoms, diseases, medicines and procedures. The book is not about curing, it’s about healing.

“My book is written in a lyrical, story-telling style,” she says, “to encourage readers to experience not only the pain and struggles elders face but also the inspiration and hope that can occur when they triumph over the trials in their lives. I want people to understand that even if life is difficult, you can still celebrate!”

A distinctive feature of Joan’s eldercare method is her use of singing and other art forms, like body movement, poetry and story-telling. This does not mean singing popular tunes or other standard entertainment, but rather using spontaneous, free-form music to express her thoughts and feelings about the elder. “This type of artistic expression,” she explains, “may lead to soulful communication and deep listening, both of which become the core of developing a meaningful relationship with elders.”

Although Joan insists hers is not a “how to” book, she nevertheless provides the reader with guidelines in ways to implement her vision of eldercare. There are 22 chapters, addressing such topics as “Pathways to Peace” and “Stepping Stones to Joy.” Moreover, each chapter ends with a list of suggestions under the rubric of “Steps for Healing.” These “steps” always include several “Insights that can help heal,” plus ways for “Helping yourself heal” and “Helping your elder heal.” These points to ponder offer the reader great ideas and concrete actions for improving their relations with elders.

In summarizing her work, Joan says her ultimate goal is to have caregivers become “Healing Companions®.” “These Healing Companions,” she explains, “are trained to listen to an elder’s innermost longings, to offer spiritual and emotional support and – most important – to share love.” Thereby, a Healing Companion can help an elder seek joy instead of despair and a sense of well-being even in the midst of pain and anxiety about the future.

If Joan Englander’s unique book on eldercare just might speak to your situation or provide a solution to your needs. Top of page


Reviewed by Sucinno

Abundant joy is the central quality flowing through the text of this book. It’s reading, however, is a challenge that charges us to take a close look at our society. A society that needs the reminding Englander offers us as to how we treat each other. 

That there is a crisis in caring for one another in America today is no secret, but it shows up critically in our treatment of those who rely on others to nurture and tend their needs, whether they are children, the sick, the homeless or the elderly. Englander has taken up that challenge in her work with the elderly, and in ‘Joy’ shares with us her response, a response that she has grown and nurtured into a shape and form - Healing Companions® - that we can learn, if we have the courage.

From the outset there is no ‘formula’ writing here, this is not a book that simply seeks to find its way onto the New York Times best sellers list. The timetable of real care, we learn, does not reach for the clock or the comfort of the controlled, predictable routine. ‘Joy’ takes us to the heart of being an elder, one who has grown old in a society that prefers to promote youth and hide its aging and vulnerable citizens. Here, friendship makes its demands without quarter.

One begins to realize, reading through ‘Joy’, this is commitment as real as a marriage, a giving of oneself wholly to connecting at the heart level. It shows us that elders are as alive with hopes and dreams as we are, and in a true democratic culture would be included as a source of added richness and wisdom. But to do so means to communicate with them, share with them, laugh and cry with them, listen to them, sometimes confess to them, and always to respect them.

Chapter by chapter Joan Englander takes us into their homes and care homes where she brings her own skill, joy, and philosophy of life as an offering to those she meets. She is greeted with pleasure and pain; “I don’t believe in old”, Atwood is a fifty year old paraplegic, “I’m as young as the universe”, with skepticism and scorn; “You son of a bitch, get out of my way”, Vera hisses her anger out, and with laughter and companionship; “He wants us to do the dance of the seven veils? We could - with six of them in the wash!” Janeen joking about sex.

‘Joy’ asks of us, do you have the courage, belief, skill, heart and joyfulness to submit to the years that the elderly carry? It reveals that time brings consequences, age carries history; and history judges. Thus finding oneself at the side of an elder, we experience a reflection of all that we are, personal and social beings that create the society we live in. It asks of us, is this the society you want? If we engage with the core of the book, we engage with the depth of our commitment to one another at all ages.

By definition, to care is to live with awareness in heart and mind. To be an open, non-judgmental, compassionate, loving person. ‘Joy’ makes clear these are qualities that we cannot switch on and off to do a ‘job’, but must seek to practice and cultivate. Yet to seek to bring about such a personal and social change in an age of silence is radical action. I found myself asking would I dare. I was reminded of those people who have dared to seek change in society when it most needed it. Rosa Parks thought sitting anywhere on the bus was everyone’s right. Just taking a seat was daring. I asked myself, where does change begin? Could a small woman working in a small town, with dedication and passion be the cause of such needed change? I don’t know, but I do know that reading and re-reading ‘Joy’ may awaken the lost soul in our society.

This sounds like a tall order for a book subtitled ‘Nurturing the Elderly Soul’, yet it is clearly our own souls we are urged to examine, and by extension the souls of current American life. I quote from an endorsement by Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi; “To read Joan Englander’s book is dangerous to a callused heart…” to which I would add, and a challenge to a callused society.  Top of page

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Review Dr. Charles Killingsworth

Reviewed by Dr. Charles Killingsworth, CTRS, Professor, Department of Health, Human Performance and Recreation, Pittsburg State University, Pittsburg, KS 

For those that work with aged persons in long term care or assisted living facilities, the book, JOY IN THE EVENING OF OUR LIVES: Nurturing the Elderly Soul – A Practical Guide & Inspirational Journey, is an outstanding resource of stories, personal reflection, and ideas that can be used to more effectively make the lives of those living in these facilities much more pleasant and even rewarding. 

Dr. Tom Smith, AKA The Old Raccoon, who is and has been an experiential educator for decades and studied with Dr. Carl Rogers, in preparing for a presentation at the 37th Annual Mid-West Symposium on Therapeutic Recreation and Adapted Physical Activity (April 2008), had this to say about this book:

I like this book. Englander addresses questions about adjustment to aging and the role of caregivers with bits of wisdom and recommendations that should be helpful and inspiring for those who deal with the elderly. At the core, I think Englander is pointing out that the key for good adjustment to aging, and also for cultivating nurturing skills for caregiving, is the process of personal growth. I agree with that argument, because I believe the personal growth process is for all of life – and aging and dying are indeed a part of life. (From “Notes and Reflections on Joan Englander’s book.)

The book is divided into two parts: Part One – Embracing the Inner Person, and Part Two – Enhancing Our Spiritual Life. Throughout this book Ms. Englander uses her own personal experiences in working with older persons in a variety of long term care facilities as a “Healing Companion.” (Englander, pg. xii). Healing Companions services are “an adjunct to traditional caregiving created to support elders. This service honors the inner life of elders through intimate dialogue, music, movement, storytelling, art, dreams, poetry, and prayer.” (pg. xii) 

The range of topics in this book facilitates the exploration of working with elderly persons using a wide variety of “interventions” and “being there” for those she encounters in her interactions. From individual one-on-one sessions through group activities, Englander’s repertoire is extensive and her ability to adapt to the moment illustrates the need for all caregivers to be more accepting of the people for whom they are responsible. After all, it is the caregivers that can either positively or negatively affect the lives of those for whom they provide the care. 

In Part One, Englander focuses upon the inner person, both of the elderly individual and the Healing Companion. This is accomplished through her descriptions of how she works with a variety of residents in long term care facilities as well as her experiences in other countries and with a wide variety of international figures such as Mother Teresa, PAGE 2 Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi and Dr. Robert Muller, Former U. N. Assistant Secretary General. She also has the support of Dr. Bernie Siegel, Dr. Jeff Kane, Dr. Murray Stein, and others. 

A common theme throughout the 13 chapters of Part One is for the Healing Companion to not only help the elderly more effectively express themselves but for caregivers to look inward themselves and to “face our own shadow” as well as understand the importance of pain. “Pain can make us better or bitter.” (pg. 144) One of the many important points made in this book is that in using the creative arts as an intervention service provider (Healing Companions®, Therapeutic Recreation Specialists, Activity Directors, and others) one must be abundantly aware that everyone can draw (paint, act, sing, create stories, etc.). Some people happen to have artistic technique, but this is unnecessary; it is the process that is most important (pg. 44). 

In Part Two, Englander explores the spiritual side of life and its importance in the lives of elderly people, as well as in our own lives. Again, through stories of her encounters and work with elders, Englander discusses the need to assist elders in looking at spirituality and does this from a broad perspective. Spirituality includes one’s relationship with God, or other higher power, as well as in the broad sense of one’s soul and being and the relationship one has with the world and others within our circle of daily life contacts. She is bold enough to discuss “Why Can’t We Talk About God?” and the role of prayer in caring for elders. She also explores the importance of ritual and facing death as a part of life. 

Finally, Englander provides us with “A New Vision of Eldercare” to conclude this most inspirational book. She believes that “The essence of eldercare needs to change: inner wellness and attention to the spiritual self need to become the core from which eldercare programs are developed.” 

This book, then, through the stories told, brings together many wonderful ideas, thoughts, feelings, and approaches to working with elderly persons that can help caregivers of elders (and others) learn about their elders, themselves, and their own personal aging process. This, in turn, can make the caregiver a much more effective provider.  
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We are all going to age and we may all have to deal with aging parents. This process can present a real challenge in either case and there are few books that look at this issue beyond medicating patients and particularly at the deeper dimensions of soul. 

Eldercare visionary Joan Englander’s new book, Joy in the Evening of Our Lives: Nurturing the Elderly Soul, presents a heart based integral eldercare model as a soulful activity in which caregivers, be they family or professional, can develop compassionate and intuitive skills. By using poetry, story, music and deep listening among other tools and techniques developed by Joan, caregivers are empowered to reach beyond their loved ones mind and many seeming labels and blocks to deeply touch their loved ones once again.

Joan’s writing illuminates how an empathetic caregiver thinks and serves and readers will gain valuable insights rarely covered in traditional eldercare literature. Joy is a valuable portal into the mind, heart and soul of elders and the creative ways caregivers can move beyond the walls that may have been built to protect the wounded psyches of their loved ones. 

Joan presents a missing link in eldercare based on her 30 years of experience and moves from the physical/medical model wherein elders are treated as objects to be fixed, medicated, entertained, moved, fed and put to bed to a whole person approach that provides a deep listening and arts based palette that can draw out hidden parts of the elder psyche and soul like no other. This is a book that you must read if you are dealing with the aging process in yourself or a loved one. 

Sonia: Love is the Healer is a powerful and intimate portrait that shows how the use of storytelling and music transforms a speechless woman with severe dementia into an alert and responsive state. It also helped her with her grieving process. The segment is from Joy in the Evening of Our Lives, a documentary currently in production that is based on Joan’s book. The documentary offers viewers the opportunity to see Joan in action as she uses music, song, poetry, storytelling and movement to work with every kind of aging challenge including Alzheimer’s and dementia, where she has been able to reach those others could not. You will learn many of Joan’s creative methods that you may be able to apply in your own situation.   
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Jeff Hutner

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Charlene Spretnak

This week I encountered a wise and loving book, Joy in the Evening of Our Lives: Nurturing the Elderly Soul - A Practical Guide and Inspirational Journey. It's written by Joan Englander, who has worked with scores of people who were in their final years and has devised an approach called the Healing Companion. Joan seeks to change the way our society tends to respond to the elderly who are physically challenged and emotionally alone. Generally, both institutions and families seek to provide food, shelter, clothing, and entertaining diversions (television, etc.) - all the while ignoring the inner reality of the elderly person, which is often a state of quiet distress and sadness. This book is full of inspiring stories of elderly people with whom Joan developed her ideas for a new kind of eldercare that provides "a sacred space for inner wellness" and for being fully present to the elder in order to nurture healing possibilities. 

This book should be in every assisted-living and nursing facility, as well as every medical course on geriatric realities. It would also be very helpful for families who are caring for an elderly person. Joan has self-published the book (though I imagine it will get "discovered" by a major publisher, as the demographic market is huge) - with endorsements from Dr. Bernie Siegel; Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi; the Jungian analyst Dr. Murray Stein; and Dr. Robert Muller, former Asst. Secretary General of the United Nations. This book is truly a blessing.

This review appeared on     
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