Photo of Joy Conolly smiling

Joy Conolly leans forward; ready to answer the question even before it’s asked.

“What do I like about my life at 80?” she laughs, “I simply love being involved with life! I love helping people and I love the rewards that always come from giving to others.”

What is a surprise to Joy is that at 80 she is still being offered challenges that both stimulate her mind and satisfy her desire to help others.

“I’m a professional psychologist and for about eight years I’ve been running what I called ‘the Friday Group’. It’s a discussion group of people from their mid-sixties to their eighties, who join me to tackle topics that are important to them. One week we might talk about ‘responsibility’ and another ‘grief’, or ‘love’ or ‘family’.”

“Then Feros Care asked if I could team up with Professor Kate Swanton, the director of Health and Wellness at Feros, to get online groups going for people who maybe aren’t mobile but can certainly participate online. It’s a great idea. I can’t tell you how thrilled I am about it. Sometimes we howl with laughter, but more often it’s a serious discussion about matters of the heart. I know how much the participants enjoy it and, for me, well, it’s the highlight of my week. There’s something about a challenge I just love.”

That capacity to confront a challenge has been at the heart of much of Joy’s endeavours. In her professional life as a psychologist she’s been an unflinching advocate for the victims of physical and sexual abuse. In one case in her then home town of Toowoomba, Joy took on the task of speaking truth to power, even confronting the then Anglican Archbishop Peter Hollingworth to properly address the issue of child sex abuse that had occurred in his diocese.

“In the end I became the voice of the voiceless. The victims were damaged and needed redress. The school wouldn’t help so I made the calls – to the police, to the church and eventually to the Archbishop. He told me, “there’s nothing I can do’”, but I didn’t see it that way. The archbishop then told me he was “tired and needed a holiday”, so I acted on the victims’ behalf. This made a difference to the eventual response, which centred on a protracted court case.

When I lost my first husband I was barely 30, and had three young children. I had to learn that I possessed an inner strength that I didn’t know I had

“As you may know, Peter Hollingworth later became the Governor-General. Meanwhile my support for the victims didn’t stop, even when the case finally went to court. Ultimately it became a pivotal case in the process of opening up the debate around child sexual abuse. And in Peter Hollingworth’s eventual resignation as G-G.”

Turning to more nurturing themes, Joy begins to discuss another challenge she successfully confronted: learning music. “Music feeds my soul”, she declares. “I can’t imagine my life without it. I’ve been mad about music my whole life, but I had to be patient. Music was definitely my great love but we were a poor family so there were no instruments and no money for lessons, so I just had to wait.”

Behind this unbridled passion there is a deep sadness. Before Joy could take flight on her journey into music, she had to endure great adversity.

“Adversity in my life has come by way of having two husbands die. Each time it happened, I lost my best friend. It was a terrible blow but it taught me that I had to get out and greet the world because the world was not going to come and meet me. And that’s what I did.”

A look of determination sets on her face as Joy continues, “I’m an introvert, and so getting out was something that I found very hard. Meeting new people and forcing myself to join in was almost a physical pain, but I’ve had such rich rewards from it, especially from music people. The friends I’ve made through music are simply wonderful, and they’re people I would never have met if I hadn’t taken that step.”

“When I lost my first husband I was barely 30, and had three young children. I had to learn that I possessed an inner strength that I didn’t know I had. When I remarried five years later, my second husband had three kids as well. So we were instantly branded The Brady Bunch. But we weren’t.”

Joy’s smile returns, “We weren’t The Brady Bunch because I didn’t have a live-in cook and we didn’t solve all our family problems in half an hour!”

Being a stepmother, Joy knew all too well the issues confronting stepfamilies and wrote a book on the topic. The book’s success lead to a lecture tour of the US which spurred Joy on to seek formal qualifications in psychology.

Despite some initial concerns as a mature aged student she threw herself into life at the University of Queensland and went on to establish a successful private practice.

“For me it was once again that moment when you just have to gulp down experiences, even if they’re daunting. Just gulp them down and keep going, that’s the only way forward.”

“And anyway, what’s the alternative? To sit at home growing old and miserable? No way! If I ever feel stuck at home I’d simply get up and go out. Go catch a bus somewhere, do something I’d been wanting to do.”

“When I think about wisdom now, I think wisdom is acknowledging what’s going right in your life, rather than focusing on what isn’t.”

For Joy this isn’t some naïve way of blocking out what she doesn’t like, far from it.

“You’ve got to have discipline, that’s for sure. But the rewards are so great. I can remember my very first music lesson, at the tender age of 64! I was studying the clarinet and on that first day I was also looking after my six-year-old grand-daughter, Jess. So she came with me – that was the first surprise for the teacher.

“He asked me how well I could read music, and I sheepishly admitted I couldn’t at all. I thought I was about to be thrown out before I’d blown a single note. But the teacher was great. He gave Jess a lolly to keep her quiet and then turned to me and said, “We’ll start with middle C and take it from there!”

“And you know since that day, that very first lesson, my passion for music has never abated. I just love it.”

Love, passion and protecting the rights of others, all themes Joy Conolly has been celebrating for as long as anyone cares to remember. And that’s why at Feros we think she’s a hero.