The best books featuring older characters who will warm your heart

Who am I?

As a family doctor working in aged care, I have always felt disappointed by the stereotypical portrayal of ageing in fiction. Older characters are rarely the protagonist of their own story and are more likely to be relegated to minor roles that reflect their marginalization and invisibility in society. And yet, despite their physical limitations, my older patients have taught me that it’s never too late to laugh, love, make new friends or create mischief. Bette Davis once said, “Old age ain’t no place for sissies.” Without sugarcoating ageing, I strive for authenticity and humor in my writing to offer a more uplifting and hopeful portrayal of what lies ahead.

I wrote...

Book cover of The Great Escape from Woodlands Nursing Home

What is my book about?

At nearly ninety, retired nature writer Hattie Bloom prefers birds to people, so when a fall lands her in a nursing home, she struggles to cope with the loss of independence and privacy. From the confines of her ‘room with a view’ (of the parking lot) she dreams of escape. Fellow ‘inmate’, the gregarious, would-be comedian Walter Clements also plans on returning home, once he has passed the driving test for his mobility scooter.

When Hattie and Walter meet at The Night Owls, a clandestine club run by Sister Bronwyn and her dog Queenie, they seem at odds. But when Sister Bronwyn is fired over her unconventional approach to aged care, they join forces to have her reinstated, and slowly, an unlikely friendship begins to grow.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry

Joanna Nell Why did I love this book?

From the whimsical cover to the idea that a seemingly ordinary person is capable of extraordinary deeds (a recurring theme in my own work) I knew instantly this was my kind of novel. Harold Fry, 65, retired and living an unremarkable life in suburbia, sets out to post a letter, and keeps on walking. His stroll to the mailbox turns into a 600-mile pilgrimage – to deliver a letter to a dying woman – and takes in much of the beautiful and familiar landscape of my native Britain. I fell easily into step with this charming character and the community that slowly builds around him. Although driven by regret and the search for atonement, Harold’s journey – both physically and emotionally – is ultimately an uplifting one, told with the perfect balance of humor and pathos. 

By Rachel Joyce,

Why should I read it?

6 authors picked The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

'Impossible to put down' TIMES
'Life-affirming delight. A comic pleasure' WOMAN AND HOME
'Profoundly moving' RICHARD MADELEY


When Harold Fry nips out one morning to post a letter, leaving his wife hoovering upstairs, he has no idea that he is about to walk from one end of the country to the other.

He has no hiking boots or map, let alone a compass, waterproof or mobile phone. All he knows is that he must keep walking. To save someone else's life.


Book cover of Our Souls at Night

Joanna Nell Why did I love this book?

Kent Haruf’s final novel opens with lonely widow Addie Moore appearing on the doorstep of her neighbour, widower Louis Waters, with a proposal: that they spend the night together rather than sleep alone. Addie says, “The nights are the worst. Don’t you think?” I bought the book based purely on that intriguing premise. Unsurprisingly, what begins as a chaste relationship, built on friendship and a way to make sense of the past, soon develops complications. There is gossip (naturally), and their adult children disapprove (naturally), but Addie and Louis prove that age is no barrier to finding love or enjoying physical intimacy. And the writing! The spare yet eloquent prose in this short novel is nothing short of a masterclass in how so few words can convey so much humanity. 

By Kent Haruf,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked Our Souls at Night as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

'Absolutely beautiful' The Times

'Luminous' Ursula K Le Guin, Guardian

'I loved Our Souls at Night' David Nicholls

Addie Moore's husband died years ago, so did Louis Waters' wife, and, as neighbours in Holt, Colorado they have naturally long been aware of each other. With their children now far away both live alone in houses empty of family. The nights are terribly lonely, especially with no one to talk to. Then one evening Addie pays Louis an unexpected visit.

Their brave adventures-their pleasures and their difficulties-form the beating heart of Our Souls at Night. Kent Haruf's final novel is an…

Book cover of Elizabeth Is Missing

Joanna Nell Why did I love this book?

A seventy-year-old mystery is solved by an eighty-year-old who can’t remember to drink the cup of tea she’s just made, or even recognize her own daughter. This is a book I wish I’d written! Emma Healey’s darkly comic yet gripping novel was a deserved bestseller and has remained with me long after I first read it. Maud, the unlikely heroine, is an unreliable narrator (no spoiler there) but one that reveals how society too often belittles and patronizes people living with dementia. In trying to make sense of the clues she hopes will lead her to her missing friend Elizabeth, she inadvertently solves an older, darker mystery surrounding the disappearance of her long-lost sister. Maud is infuriating yet irresistible, epitomizing the kind of older character I love to see prevail.

By Emma Healey,

Why should I read it?

7 authors picked Elizabeth Is Missing as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?


How do you solve a mystery when you can't remember the clues?

Maud is forgetful. She makes a cup of tea and doesn't remember to drink it. She goes to the shops and forgets why she went. Sometimes her home is unrecognizable - or her daughter Helen seems a total stranger.

But there's one thing Maud is sure of: her friend Elizabeth is missing. The note in her pocket tells her so. And no matter who tells her to stop going on about it, to leave it alone, to…

Book cover of The Secret Diary of Hendrik Groen, 83¼ Years Old

Joanna Nell Why did I love this book?

I simply couldn’t resist the combination of the title of this book – a nod to Sue Townsend’s The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, aged 13 ¾, which I enjoyed many years ago – and its ironic setting of an Amsterdam aged care home. The novel is supposedly an exposé by an anonymous care home resident, although the author was subsequently revealed as Dutch writer, Peter de Smet. Told in the form of a diary, the book portrays the frustrations, indignities, and occasional small victories of Hendrik and his buddies in the Old-But-Not-Dead-Yet club as they fight to maintain agency over their own lives. The interplay between self-deprecating humor and poignancy in exploring the important themes around old age had me laughing out loud on one page and shedding tears on the next. 

By Hendrik Groen, Hester Velmans (translator),

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked The Secret Diary of Hendrik Groen, 83¼ Years Old as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The hilarious international bestselling novel that has had pensioners ditching their sticks and zimmers to follow the age-defying, youth inducing antics inside The Secret Diary of Hendrik Groen, 83 1/4 Years Old . . .

'Terrific. This geriatric Adrian Mole made me laugh' Woman and Home

'Funny and touching' BBC Radio 4

Meet Hendrik Groen. An octogenarian in a care home who has no intention of doing what he's told, or dying quietly. To that end, he creates the Old-But-Not-Dead Club and with his fellow members sets about living his final years with careless abandon. Such anarchism infuriates the care…

Book cover of Three Things about Elsie

Joanna Nell Why did I love this book?

The author of this novel is, like me, a doctor-writer. I imagine we share the same motivation to tell stories. As a psychiatrist, Joanna Cannon’s writing portrays her compassion and deep understanding of the human condition. In this novel, the mundane existence of eighty-four-year-old Florence in her care home is upset by the arrival of a man she is convinced she recognizes from her past, a man who supposedly died years before. Only her lifelong friend, the eponymous Elsie believes her. My favorite author Somerset Maugham (also a doctor) attributed his success as a writer to his powers of observation rather than his imagination. What makes this novel so compelling in my eyes are the astute observations and the easily overlooked details that hold the clues to solving the mystery.

By Joanna Cannon,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked Three Things about Elsie as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The bestselling author of The Trouble with Goats and Sheep delivers a suspenseful and emotionally satisfying novel “infused with warmth and humor” (People) about a lifelong friendship, a devastating secret, and the small acts of kindness that bring people together.

There are three things you should know about Elsie. The first thing is that she’s my best friend. The second is that she always knows what to say to make me feel better. And the third thing…might take a bit more explaining.

Eighty-four-year-old Florence has fallen in her flat at Cherry Tree Home for the Elderly. As she waits to…

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Book cover of The Secret Order of the Scepter & Gavel

Nicholas Ponticello Author Of The Secret Order of the Scepter & Gavel

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What is my book about?

Vanderough University prepares its graduates for life on Mars. Herbert Hoover Palminteri enrolls at VU with the hope of joining the Martian colony in 2044 as a member of its esteemed engineer corps. But then Herbert is tapped to join a notorious secret society: the Order of the Scepter and Gavel. As a new pledge, Herbert has to prove himself in a series of dangerous initiation rites, even if it means risking his life and the lives of his friends.

Many years later, when Herbert thinks the scandals of his youth are finally dead and buried, a murder occurs in the Martian colony, and Herbert starts to suspect it is linked to the secret Order of the Scepter and Gavel of his past.

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