I met Joanna Overn on her birthday June 8th 2013. A friend of hers had brought her to a party at Hope & A Future. This was on the occasion of our monthly potluck and house concert. The friend told us Joanna would no longer be able to live on her own and he was looking for help from me. I am an RN that went into nursing 38 years ago with the hope of developing better services and living situations for frail seniors. For the past 15 years, I had been living with seniors and providing care for them in my home. November of 2012, with the help of many, Hope & A Future opened its doors as a charitable non-profit business. The full vision is to develop what my co-founder Paula Reif and I have called a TIIN (Therapeutic, Interactive, Intergenerational Neighborhood). We are now in planning to develop the next phase of this staffed neighborhood setting where young and old could use their strengths to help serve each other’s needs. And perhaps more important than the help is the hope of developing meaningful long term relationships in the context of neighbors helping while being helped. Joanna fit perfectly in this setting. When we met, Hope & A Future was in its first year of having its own address! I did not have an available room at Hope & A Future at that time, but I did in the home that my husband Rick and I had lived in with our family for the past 20 years. When we suddenly found support and a perfect property to start Hope & A Future, our adult children moved back to our home to care for the residents they had grown up with. We called this at home business, Intergenerational House. We did have an available room there. So, the next day we moved Joanna into our home.
Joanna was a delight and a bit complicated. I soon realized she had a number of health conditions needing attention. One of them immediate. When I asked her who her physician was, she told me she had regularly seen Dr. Quisling until he retired, but could never decide who to go to after that. I believe he had retired 30 years earlier. Thankfully, I was able to set her up with a great medical team. I remain grateful to Dr. Michelle Schroeder podiatrist at Associated Podiatrists and Dr. Tyler Steward from the UW geriatric clinic who carefully and compassionately cared for her—always aware of her desire for minimal intervention. Joanna had developed dementia and severe cataracts that rendered her blind. Because of the large size of the cataracts, they were removed in a long surgery. They had gotten so big that her cornea was never able to heal enough for clear vision. However, she was again able to know if it was day or night and to see just enough around the edges of her visual field to improve her balance and see color.
Although her short-term memory had failed her, her long-term memory was filled with more information than the average person retains. To the day she died, she was able to come up with more answers than the staff and residents combined in areas of Opera, classical music, astronomy, geography, history and classical literature. She seemed to have many Dicken’s novels nearly memorized! She could tell us not only about music and literature but also about the history surrounding the works and about the lives of composers and authors. Joanna was a delightful story teller. She loved movies from her era and knew a great deal about the actors and actresses in those movies as well. She taught us a great deal and broadened our appreciation for Opera and Dickens.
As impressive as her vast array of knowledge was, I found her most striking quality to be her vivid imagination and her child like joy. Somewhere along the line, she decided that I had bought the house her Grandfather had built on lake Mendota. This idea gave her so much joy that I never corrected her notion. She would walk past our big sunny windows and remark on all of the beautiful sail boats on the lake. We agreed they were beautiful. Although our property is beautiful, the only body of water is the swimming pool, and we do not see sail boats. But we imagined them with her. For a long time her dear friend Maralee picked her up to go to the Opera and Symphony. The two would leave the house in their fresh hair-dues and fur coats. However, in time Joanna only remembered the Civic Center and would get quite annoyed when she was walking in a direction that did not seem right to her. These trips eventually became too stressful for her. Before that time, I once took her to “see” the Barber of Seville. Before the curtains opened, she described the set she was “seeing”. Very different from the set-in front of us, but described it in beautiful detail. She “watched” the opera with her eyes closed and later told me of her favorite visual treats in the Opera. When the trips to live shows became more stressful than fun for her, we would give her a (weak) Martini and play recordings of the Opera for her. By the time the Opera was over, she literally thought she had gone to see it! What a wonderful ability to imagine!
The Church she had attended, televised Sunday morning services. We would record these services to suit her schedule and then ask her if she was ready for Church. We would usher her into the room and she would move as if she was side stepping behind a pew and then sit down for the service. Although she could never admit that she would doze off, she often told me, “Something is different, they start a sermon and never quite get to the point and then start singing hymns. You would think someone would complain. A sermon really should have a complete point.” I agreed.
Although her short-term memory was not reliable, over the years she lived with us, she did get to know all of the care givers at Hope & A Future. Occasionally there would be some confusion of the facts, yet what was clear is that she genuinely cared about everyone and she was aware of topics important to each person. As the RN Executive Director, she would ask me how my meetings went and listened with genuine interest, often making suggestions. She often asked about her dear care giver Karen’s grandsons, as well as the classes our daughter Katie is taking as she works on a second degree. Joanna expressed a childlike joy over the dogs that lived and visited in our home. She called all of them honey and loved to hold, pet and give them a few too many treats. We first learned about her amazing sense of humor when we went out for lunch to celebrate Katie’s birthday. Joanna decided we should all have a margarita and we all laughed like school girls! She loved celebrations. Over the last two years, when it was time for Monday Manicure’s she would say to Ruthie, our art/activity therapist, “How about red, it is so nice for the holidays”. It was always almost Christmas—Joanna’s favorite time of year. Joanna also loved Friday fiddling @ Hope & A Future. She would join in choosing favorite pieces of sing a long music for Ruthie and Blaine to play on their fiddles. So, Ruthie was well equipped to select music for Joanna’s memorial service. In the morning, Karen, Rick and Ruthie made sure we had beautiful music playing when Joanna came down to our sunny table for breakfast. On Friday December 15th, when Rick came in to Joanna’s room to deliver her bedtime medication. She was lying on her bed, petting our new puppy Odie and listening to Haydn—music she knew Rick enjoyed. Joanna and Rick began talking about the music and suddenly her breathing was interrupted. She died that night surrounded by the care givers she shared a home with and who had come to love her. In our hearts, we remain a real family of friends. Although we miss her, we take comfort in knowing she now has new eyes and ears. We also hope she heard the halleluiah chorus live in heaven. Because, as she told us, “That is one piece of music that should only be heard live!” I agree.
This coming week, the Madison Opera will honor Joanna by giving tickets to those of us that cared for her during the last years of her life. Joanna loved and gave richly to opera and was never quite as happy as when she talked about people she had opened the world of Opera to. She will be thrilled from on high to know we are all there—some on Friday February 9th and some on Sunday February 11th. We fully expect to feel her spirit and we are grateful to Madison Opera for honoring Joanna and the caregivers she shared a home with in this very meaningful way.
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Written by members of the Hope & a Future community including residents, volunteers, and staff.