Better with age

Jean-Paul BellALL good patriots must sacrifice for their country, for Jean-Paul Bell that came in the form of giving up his role as “responsible boat captain” in the Woody Point Yacht Club’s Putt Putt Regatta to assume his post as Moree’s Australia Day ambassador.

But while he admitted to a touch of disappointment at missing the slightly eccentric race around Sydney’s Scotland Island, the celebrated clown doctor was more than happy to be returning to the far side of the Great Dividing Range.

Mr Bell was awarded for his ambassadorial post after being a named a 2015 NSW Senior Australian of the Year finalist.

As a performer, he has visited Moree “around a dozen times”, most recently in his new role – introducing the arts and cultural curation into aged care.

In 2010, 14 years after co-founding an organisation which brought clowning into the health sector, Mr Bell left the Humour Foundation and went on to create the Arts Health Institute.

Another non-profit, Mr Bell said it aimed to improve the lives of those in institutional care, particularly elderly people who were self-isolating and agitated.

“Most of those people are quite advanced with their dementia and don’t fit into the programs that are in aged care,” he said.

So Mr Bell and co. hold weekly “play-up ballets” which work with the individual’s life experience.

“We do a bit of research on the individual, we find out where they are from and some of the success that they had in their life and we bring that up in our interaction in a playful, humorous way with them,” he said.

“If we were with a woman who was a singer, we’d bring up the songs that she used to sing and praise her voice, even if it was not as good as it once was.”

Mr Bell said it was about changing the sector’s culture from institutional care to a more “connected, playful approach”.

Already, he said, it was having quantifiable success, significantly reducing agitation and depression and getting elders more connected with those around them.

And it’s not just the elderly who are benefiting from the institute’s work. Mr Bell said he too had been richly rewarded.

“One of the biggest lessons I’ve learnt is that you’re not dead until you stop breathing,” he said. “There’s potential in everybody and active ageing is important. That means that when you’re frail and can hardly leave your bed, you’ve still got an active mind, there’s still ways that you can contribute and be involved.”

He said he’d been “blown away” by many of the people he had worked with.

“I know one particular woman who’s just decided to come back to live in Australia from the United States – when she was 99,” he said.

“She turned 100 in November, she’s still working, she’s still coming up with ideas, she’s still expressing the notion that she may think about marrying again.

“Oh and she wants to do another dance project.”

Some even flourish in advanced age, Mr Bell said, citing the late Australian artist Lloyd Rees, whose work took on a new life as his vision succumbed to cataracts.

“As he got older and his sight was failing, he started creating these beautiful artworks that looked like boats coming through fog, because, that’s how he saw it,” Mr Bell said. “He adapted to his disability and created some very interesting works because of it.”

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