You Have to Be a Rebel Sometimes

“You Have to Be a Rebel Sometimes”

On a hot summer morning in Baltimore in 2014, Virginia Bell, then 92, led a training on her groundbreaking approach to dementia care—one that stresses human dignity, gives the caregiver ideas for success, and inspires more hopeful, life-affirming attitudes. Standing in front of a packed class of attentive caregivers from all over the country, she shared her strategies for bringing about true, person-centered change in dementia care. She told them, “You have to be a rebel sometimes.”

Believe it or not, the idea of person-centered care was a rebellious one when Virginia Bell co-founded the Best Friends Approach to dementiaQuote by William Marksbery care in the 1980s. At that time, Alzheimer’s care met only basic physical needs, an institutional model limited to custodial safekeeping, without considering the emotional needs of the person. Virginia recognized the necessity for a care model that encompassed the whole individual—one that saw someone with dementia as a person, not a disease—an individual who has lived a full life, and one whose days could still be filled with security, kindness, laughter, and love, despite the disorientation caused by their cognitive losses.

The rebellious answer to the institutional model of care was simple yet revolutionary: Treat a person with dementia as you would a friend. Know their personality, laugh and spend time together, provide comfort and support. Incorporating these essential elements of friendship into dementia care gives care partners the knowledge and skills to provide individualized, meaningful care within a trust-filled relationship.

Now, 8 years after that day in Baltimore, Virginia Bell is approaching her 100th birthday with an incredible legacy—a life’s work that will leave a lasting impact on the field of dementia care and continue to help people with dementia, their families, and their caregivers. Her seminal book, The Best Friends Approach to Alzheimer’s Care, was published in 1996, and she has since co-authored six books on the approach. The books have been published in multiple languages, and the approach has been adopted around the world, fostering more than 100 certified experts in the approach with its corresponding Master Training program.

Organizations in the United States and Canada have fully embraced the approach at their communities, earning a designation of a Best Friends™ Environment. Most important, Virginia’s work has impacted countless lives, making caregivers’ lives less stressful and more fulfilling, and ensuring that people with dementia can continue to live a dignified and enjoyable life feeling safe, secure, and valued at all stages of the disease.

In her long career, Virginia Bell has spoken around the world and won numerous awards. Even while turning 100 in 2022, Virginia remains devoted to her mission and is not slowing down. She continues to volunteer in the day center she founded and to advise state officials on best dementia practices. She’s also involved with Dementia-Friendly Lexington, part of a national campaign to build community supports for people with memory loss.

How does one measure 100 years of a life? For Virginia, the individual life story defines the whole person more than any number of years. She’s the tough-as-nails sister to seven siblings growing up on a farm, the reverend’s wife and the mother to five children, the social worker whose career began at age 60, the 10K runner into her 80s, the founder of one of the first dementia-specific adult day centers and developer of a powerful approach to care, the author, the public speaker, the friend, the revolutionary. The rebel.

Learn about the Best Friends™ approach!

The Best Friends ApproachWhat people experiencing memory loss need most of all is someone dedicated to helping them feel safe, secure, and valued—at all stages of the disease. Adopting the internationally acclaimed Best Friends™ approach to dementia care helps professional and family care providers gain the skills and confidence needed for this critical role.

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