Lexington Herald Leader

Virginia Bell, whose decision to go back to school at age 60 led to her developing a groundbreaking approach to caring for people with dementia, founding an adult daycare center and becoming an internationally known speaker and author in the field of aging, died Saturday. She was 100.

She died “peacefully while surrounded by her family,” according to an obituary on Milward Funeral Directors’ website. Arrangements were incomplete Tuesday.

Bell, of Lexington, collaborated with David Troxel to co-author six books, including the “Best Friends Approach to Dementia Care.”

“In the field of dementia care she was a trailblazer. She recognized that every person with dementia wants to be safe, secure and valued. They have the right to live life to the fullest,” a post on the Best Friends Approach Facebook page stated. “In the Best Friends Day Center and everywhere she went, she treated persons with dementia as real people with real feelings who deserved respect and attention.

“For 40 years—from age 60 to her centennial—she was committed to finding care strategies that would give them the best possible quality of life.”

Troxel wrote in a Facebook post that he had “lost my dearest friend and writing partner of almost 40 years.”

“Virginia’s accomplishments were extraordinary, with an office wall chock-full of awards and recognitions including an honorary doctorate from the University of Kentucky,” he wrote. “Virginia was an early advocate for people living with dementia and their care partners and a thought leader who changed the face of dementia care. She was truly one of the most accomplished, remarkable, inspirational and hardworking persons I’ve ever known, and she lived a joyful life filled with purpose.”

In the early 1980s, Bell went back to school at the University of Kentucky to study social work. While doing a practicum at the Sanders-Brown Center on Aging, she was tasked with sitting with people who had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease while their caregivers attended a support group.

“That first session was awful — the people with dementia were upset that they were in a strange place, but for the next five months, I had them for an hour and I learned from them verbally and non verbally what works,” Bell told the Herald-Leader last summer, when she celebrated her 100th birthday. “If you lifted the disease and looked under, you found a person with a life story different from anyone else.”

She discovered that patients responded better to caregivers who knew about their lives before dementia and could relate to them on a personal level, treating them with empathy, kindness and humor — like a best friend would.

“It was amazing how friendship melts down the angry feelings of people,” Bell said last year. “If we can create this, we can have them be at their best instead of their worst.”

Bell went on to become the first family counselor at Sanders-Brown and founded what is now known as the Best Friends Adult Day Program. The day center started at Second Presbyterian Church and is now located in Nicholasville.

In recent years, she continued to volunteer with the program and helped launch Dementia Friendly Lexington, a group of volunteers with a goal of training businesses and other organizations on how to better respond to clients with dementia.

“During her 100 incredible years of life, Virginia’s passion to help people living with dementia continue to lead fulfilling and dignified lives helped countless people and their loved ones,” Dementia Friendly Lexington said in a Facebook post. “Virginia continues to be our inspiration, and all of us at DFL are committed to carrying on her legacy in ways that would make her proud.“

Bell was born in Harrison County on June 30, 1922, according to Milward. Her parents were Harry and Laura Marsh.

She graduated from Transylvania University in 1944 with a degree in biology and mathematics, according to the university’s website. She earned her master’s in social work from UK in 1982 and was later inducted into the school’s Social Work Hall of Fame.

For nearly 73 years, Bell was married to the late Wayne Bell, a minister and president of Lexington Theological Seminary. Wayne Bell died in 2017 at age 97. They had five children.

The couple remained active throughout their lives. Virginia Bell was a regular at the High Street YMCA, and she ran the Bluegrass 10,000 every year for 25 years.

At 91, she decided to sit out the race because she said she had not had time to train properly. She told the Herald-Leader at the time that she had just completed a speaking engagement in Taiwan and Hong Kong.

In their later years, Virginia and Wayne Bell often made presentations together on the topic of spirituality and aging.

“Perhaps it is no coincidence that Virginia passed away in this season of Easter, Passover and Ramadan as she and her late husband Wayne often spoke about the spiritual needs of persons living with dementia,” Best Friends Approach wrote in their Facebook post. “Virginia was the matriarch of a large and caring family and a mentor to hundreds if not thousands of students and young professionals in her career.

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