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From onion sandwiches to filet mignon: the changing of the guard in residential aged care!

By Jim Toohey - posted Friday, 13 February 2009

We’ll call her Mary.

She was in her 90s - but still sound of mind and keen of wit.

She grew up in the bush - at a time when the bush really meant the bush; remote and isolated.


She was orphaned in her early teens and as there was no one to take the children in, the family was broken up. She went to work as a servant girl for a wealthy family living on Moreton Bay; it was here she developed her lifelong love of seafood!

Eventually she married and had her own large family (nine children) and a husband, a World War I veteran, who had been wounded in France and returned to work on the railways.

One of her most vivid memories was trying to raise her children during the Great Depression on a railway worker's salary. Quite often, there just simply wasn't enough money to last between pays and the household would run very low on food. At such times, she used to employ a strategy of going without meals herself for several days, telling the family that she was sitting up late to do some mending and would have her dinner then. When they had gone to bed, she used to cut up onions and put them between the crusts of the left over bread.

When she told this story, she laughed at the memory of how long someone could last on black tea and onion sandwiches!

Mary lived in an aged care facility where she enjoyed the attention of a large and loving family. She shared a room with another three ladies who reveled in the company of each other’s visitors.

The building was old and institutional though clean and well maintained.


The food was good but plain - her generation thrived on meat and three veg; that was all they asked for and to have it in abundance was considered a luxury.

Her life circumstances had conditioned her expectations. She was stoic and adaptive, she didn't make many demands and she rejoiced in a warm bed and the company of good friends.

Not long after she died, I met a member of her family who was packing up her belongings and preparing for her funeral.

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About the Author

Jim Toohey is a practicing Catholic and former Catholic seminarian.

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