There is perhaps no better way to celebrate Senior Citizens Awareness Month than to honor the legacy and memory of Lexington senior living advocate, Virginia Bell.
Bell died peacefully at the age of 100 in her home on the evening of April 8, 2023, with family at her side and with plans for the Easter service the next morning. She was born June 30, 1922, in Harrison County, KY.
“This movement to make our city Dementia Friendly has been a dream of Lexington native, Virginia Bell,” Amber Lakin, Chairperson of the Dementia Friendly Lexington Advisory Board, said as the program began to gain recognition.
Bell was widely lauded for her work in adult day care, developing one of the first dementia-specific adult day programs in the country, using a unique method of care based on friendship, known as the Best Friends Approach. This approach is celebrated for its positive philosophy stressing dignity and techniques for success when facing a challenging disease.
In 1992, she was awarded an honorary doctorate from Transylvania University. In 1999, she received the Senior Award from the American Society on Aging for her dedication to the significant contribution that older persons can make to society. She was inducted into the UK Social Work Hall of Fame and received the Sullivan Award from the University of Kentucky in 2004. In 2022, at the age of 100, she received an honorary doctorate from University of Kentucky.
Throughout her career, she penned numerous articles and books and lectured both nationally and internationally on the Best Friends approach to dementia care, as well as on spirituality and aging with Wayne. They were proud to have visited forty countries around the globe during their adventuresome years together.
A memorial service will be held at Central Christian Church, Lexington, KY, at 2 pm Saturday, May 13, with a reception to follow. Contributions in Virginia’s honor and memory may be made to: The Virginia Bell Best Friends Endowment Fund, Christian Care Communities, 12710 Townepark Way, Louisville, KY 40243 or Central Christian Church, 219 East Short Street, Lexington, KY 40507 or to a charity of your choosing that exemplifies Virginia’s work and spirit.
Bell awarded honorary UK Degree in 2022
By Jenny Wells-Hosley
Bell was awarded an Honorary Doctor of Humane Letters by the University of Kentucky late last year, at the age of 100.
Born in Harrison County, Kentucky in 1922, Virginia Bell was raised on a subsistence farm as the second of seven children. She earned a bachelor’s degree in math and biology at Transylvania University in 1944.
Bell and her husband moved to Nashville, Tennessee, where they raised five children. The family returned to Lexington in 1974 when her husband accepted the presidency of the Lexington Theological Seminary. At that same time, Bell’s parents, still living on the farm outside of Cynthiana, began experiencing the challenges of aging, allowing Bell to witness firsthand how care was provided for older adults. These experiences, plus earlier life exposures to how persons with dementia were being shuttered in psychiatric units, ignited her commitment to do something more for aging adults, particularly those with dementia and their families.
At age 60, Bell earned a Master of Social Work at UK, began her second career at UK’s Sanders-Brown Center on Aging and created the Best Friends Approach to dementia care, a model adopted by care facilities, nursing homes and day treatment centers around the world. While acknowledging the medical and psychological challenges of dementia, the Best Friends Approach emphasizes and respects the humanity of people with dementia and focuses on relationship-centered care. Understanding that each person has a life history, identity and talents, the Best Friends Approach embraces the human need for connection through interpersonal interaction, activity, dignity and respect.
The approach, and Bell herself, received numerous honors, grants and awards, including recognition by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the National Council on Aging and the American Society on Aging. Bell twice has served on the Kentucky Governor’s Task Force on Alzheimer’s Disease; she received UK’s Sullivan Award in 2004; she was inducted into the UK Social Work Hall of Fame (2010) and she received the UK Alumni Association Hall of Distinguished Alumni Award (2010).
While she officially retired in 1993, Bell remained a constant mentor to the Best Friends program, conducting training for volunteers, attending activities at day centers, traveling throughout the world to help establish new programs and serving as a keynote speaker at national and international conferences. Around the time of her 100th birthday in June 2022, Bell addressed a global meeting on Alzheimer’s disease, continuing her efforts to recognize that beneath the challenges of dementia lies a person of value with a past, present and future.
This article appears on page 9 of the May 2023 issue of HJ. To subscribe, click here.