Caregiver Thought Leader Interview:
It is always fun to be able to interview a friend as well as a colleague whose work I highly respect. And Dale Bell is both of those. Dale Bell has earned an Academy Award, two Emmys and a Peabody. He and his long-term colleague, Emmy Award-winning producer/director, Harry Wieland, joined forces in ’99 to create a media that matters for Public Broadcasting. In 2003, the two created the Media Policy Center Foundation with the goal of leveraging media to provoke civil discourse and community engagement. So, from “Woodstock” to “Thou Shalt Honor” to “Homes on the Range.”
Gary Barg: Dale, you have really chronicled the journey of America’s boomers and seniors, and I am so impressed with your new special, Homes on the Range. Can you tell me about the program?
Dale Bell: Homes on the Range derived from basically two sources. One of them was my mother, who, when she was passing and I was her caregiver, kept holding onto my arm, shaking me as she was dying, saying, “Someday, Dale, you will do something with this; you will do something with what you are doing with me.” I never knew what that would mean until Harry and I got together in 1999 to start talking about caregiving for both of our respective parents. Along the way, in 2001, just as we were finishing our filming, I went to San Diego, where I heard this absolutely charismatic guy on a stage. Birkenstocks, dungarees, beard and energy. At the back of the room, I listened and said, “This guy has got to be part of our film.” People next to me, who I did not know, said, “You will never get to him. It is impossible; he is just too busy.” At the end of his speech, I walked up to the edge of the stage, put my hand out, and said, “Hi, I’m Dale Bell. I produced this movie called Woodstock and right now we’re focusing on caregiving.”
Dr. Bill Thomas took my hand, gripped it, shook it and said, “Count on me, I’m in; call me anytime.”
Gary Barg: I was at that event in San Diego where I met you and Harry in the lobby. As an ex-video guy, not involved as deeply as you guys were, what you were doing really rang a bell for me. I think Bill Thomas was on the cover of Today’s Caregiver magazine at that moment. You guys are the chroniclers of a specific generation that thought they would never grow old, and now you have changed how people consider aging.
Dale Bell: Absolutely right, and we feel very humble and honored to be in that position. Bill called us maybe two weeks before he opened the first model of Green Houses in Tupelo, Mississippi, in May of 2003. We filmed for about a week and caught the absolute miraculous, if you will, transformation of a couple of the elders who had been in the standard nursing home. Once they got into the environment and received the vibes of the hearth, they became awake, they became human beings, they fed themselves, and they began to walk.
This little film of 25 minutes, the Green House Project, we got to Bill almost immediately—within two or three weeks of having filmed it. He used it to raise the first $10,000,000 from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. We took that film to share it in Wyoming, where I had roots from my days as a summer ranch hand in 1955. Sheridan was a town that took me in and I loved it. I thought there was an opportunity that I could give back, if you will, to the community, and give them a gift. I planted the 25-minute film in the hands of Carmen Rideout, then Executive Director of the Sheridan Senior Center, and her President of the Board of Trustees, Ray Clark, the pastor at Saint Peters Church. I said to them, “I will bet you guys might be able to do this in Sheridan. And if you do, I will follow you with my camera wherever your journey takes you.” That was a challenge.
Twelve years later, after a 120 odd hours of filming in locations across the country, including Sheridan, I finally raised enough money to be able to ask Beverly Bareoff, our producer/writer/editor, to sit in the editing room with me and go through these hours to craft three different versions: a theatrical film of 85 minutes, a 90-minute Public Television broadcast and a 60-minute Public Television broadcast. This year, on November 21st at 6:00 p.m., we had laid out a red carpet underneath the marquis of the historic WYO Theater in Sheridan. Just a few minutes after the carpet was down, a van from Green Houses pulled up, crunching the snow, and, I am going to cry, the first elders from the Green Houses crossed the red carpet in their wheel chairs, maneuvering themselves down the ramp carefully, being unstrapped and rolling across the red carpet.
Gary Barg: This says everything to me—that your celebrities are your seniors.
Dale Bell: They felt important; that they were the stars of this film. And they were so right. This film is about a series of exhortations that I was fortunate enough to be able to capture from Dr. Bill over the course of six or seven years. But, I rolled them into the stories of the community of Sheridan coming together to make a dramatic difference in how they cared for their elders and their frail. This is a 25,000-person community in Northern Wyoming. It has got two traditional nursing homes, a hospital and things like that, but this effort on the part of the community of Sheridan resulted in the very first entirely grassroots, not-for-profit, skilled nursing facility in the United States.
Gary Barg: Looking at that video, I felt that we are on the threshold of the future of elder care we all hope to have ourselves.
Dale Bell: Because it is a grassroots effort and not dictated from the top, it can become a model of its own. We are not pretending that every community has the financial resources and organizational capability that Sheridan has, but we do know that even on the surface and really deep down, communities want to change themselves. They look inward, they evaluate, they assess, and they say, “Let us try a new tact.” Our film is an effort to inspire other communities to look at themselves and at their eldercare and at their frail, because some members of the Green Houses Residence are not elders; they are in their 40s and 50s, you know.
Gary Barg: You know that conversation about boomers being the python that ate the elephant demographically? We changed everything as we grew up. From clothes to fashion to sexual morays, to now even what we consider acceptable care as we age. This consideration should filter down through regular senior facilities and nursing homes, don’t you think?
Dale Bell: We hope so. We think that Bill has discovered a model and we can be his, if you will, Pied Pipers to carry that message across the country. We are not in the business of building Green Houses. We are in the business of encouraging people to change their attitudes by providing them with aspirational and inspirational stories.
Gary Barg: What can we, as family caregivers, do if we are interested in making sure that Homes on the Range is seen in our local communities?
Dale Bell: As a caregiver interested in this subject, the first thing to do is to identify your local Public Television station. The second thing to do is to write them a letter or send them an e-mail or give them a call and/or do all three. Say that you have heard and read about this new film called Homes on the Range and urge that the programmers at the local public station secure broadcast rights for it in the second quarter—April, May, June of 2015. Our goal will be to saturate all Public Television stations, particularly in May, which is Older Americans Month. And a caregiver should put together a coalition in the community, if one does not already exist, identify other members, and get together to watch the broadcast. Then create a task force and do what Sheridan did—look inward, ask the questions about how to change what they have in their community, how to improve and enhance what exists in their community. Then set out an agenda, a timeline and a methodology to be able to create social change through media.
Gary Barg: Can you share your website address with us?
Dale Bell: Mediapolicycenter.org is where we will be putting up a lot of stuff that we collect from Wyoming and across the country. It will be used as the hub of the wheel that we expect will go across this country in the next six months.