If you want to know the secret to longevity, it’s best to ask someone who’s been around a while, who’s given the idea serious thought and has worked extensively in the field.
Virginia Bell more than qualifies. Bell, who turned 95 this year, is a Lexington author and world renowned developer of the Best Friends Approach for the care of people with Alzheimer’s and other dementias.
Bell earned math and biology degrees from Transylvania in 1944 and earned a master’s in social work at UK nearly 40 years later.
In between, she raised five children – all college graduates – with her late husband, Wayne, and now has 11 grandchildren and 13 great grandchildren.
Working at the UK Sanders-Brown Center on Aging, Bell developed the Best Friends Approach, which is founded on the belief that relationships are indispensable in dementia care.
Caregivers offer respect, empathy, support, trust and humor – all essential elements in friendship.
Best Friends has been used all over the world, and Bell, who officially retired in 1993, is still a consultant and mentor.
Bell has lectured in more than 30 countries, been published in countless journals, co-authored five books and mentored an untold number of caregivers.
Transylvania awarded her an honorary doctorate in 1992.
An inspirational speaker, Bell is captivating when discussing the Best Friends Approach. She casts a similar spell when discussing another topic close to her heart – the importance of family.
Life in a close-knit family in rural Kentucky can teach us much about the keys to longevity, Bell said. Like what, for instance?
“Well, we ate a lot of dirt,” Bell said with a laugh during an interview at her home in Lexington.
That’s her way of saying her family lived off the family farm. Outside of Cynthiana in the 1920s and 30s, Harry and Laura Rorer Marsh raised their seven children on a diet devoid of processed food.
After all, the family had no ice box.
Meals came from the wheat, corn, fruit trees and a large vegetable garden grown on the farm along with meat from chickens, cows and hogs.
For special items like coffee and sugar, they traded goods with the huckster truck driver who came around once a week.
Virginia was the second oldest in a family of six girls and a boy and worked side by side with her father on the farm.
Fresh air and fresh food combined with good genes and a healthy life style (Bell takes yoga and aerobics classes at 6 a.m. at the Downtown YMCA) proved a winning formula for Bell and her siblings – all of whom are still alive.
The roll call is as follows: Margaret Smith, 99; Virginia Bell, 95; Rees Wilcox, 93; twins Jack Marsh and Joy Rice 90; Faith Blumenfeld, 89; and Gay Perrin, a mere 81.
The family also valued education. Virginia’s mother enrolled at EKU in 1908 when the teachers college was only two years old. She taught school briefly and earned a nursing degree in Cincinnati before she and Harry married, worked the farm and raised a family.
When the oldest child first went off to school, Margaret traveled in a surrey – a horse drawn carriage.
When Virginia first started school she rode a little gray school bus. But when it was full of kids and came to the hill at Mud Lick Pike, students got out and walked so the bus could crest the hill.
Extended family also supported the Marsh children, whose four sets of grandparents lived within eight miles.
Virginia grew up hearing her grandparents discuss Lincoln and the Civil War. With her grandchildren and great grandchildren, Virginia ruminates about inter-planetary space travel.
“Old age is like a bridge,” she said. “I have a long look back and now with my great grandchildren I have a long look into the future.”
As much as a mentor as Bell has been in her life, her family continues to teach her.
Since 1980, the extended family including in-laws added to the family, has gathered for a week-long reunion held at state parks around the commonwealth.
Bell’s son Ken has said that the “people that we’ve added to the family have certainly improved our family.”
For 38 years in a row, as many as 100 family members of the seven siblings come from 18 different states (and a few foreign countries) gather in June to reminisce, share family news and entertain each other with talent shows.
“When extended families know their history and get together they learn so much from each other,” Bell said.
“For example, our family is inter-generational, inter-cultural and inter-racial, and we have gay and lesbian, Democrats and Republicans, vegans and vegetarians, and we have different views on religion.
“That builds appreciation for other lifestyles and makes us even more of a special family.”
Bell’s great grandchildren even dress up in her parents clothing that Virginia has saved. Bell and her siblings are the stars of the talent shows, which follow themes such as famous Kentucky women, Italian opera singers and beautiful hat day.
“We have such a wonderful time,” she said. “We get to celebrate each other and also are there for each other during sad times.”
Bell realizes, of course, that families today are scattered – few of our grandparents live within walking distance. Still, we must do what we can to keep those bonds close, she said.
“Family is a gift and something I think more about these days,” she said. “Young children need family support.
“It’s just so important to have a core group of people that stay connected.”