By Sondra Shapiro
Baby boomer cohorts and their parents should take a moment to pay tribute to Robert Butler who passed away on our nation’s birthday at age 83.
During my 30-year-career reporting on aging issues, I have been privileged to interview many pioneers in the aging field. Dr. Butler stood out as a true trailblazer. His message that aging is a productive and positive stage of life resonates with an American population that is enjoying the longest lifespan in its history.
When he coined the term, “ageism,” in 1968 — meaning any attitude, action or institutional structure that subordinates a person or group because of age or any assignment of roles in society purely on the basis of age — Americans were finally able to face the insidious damage being done to our societal fabric.
His 2006 task force analyzed the impact of age-related prejudice in a report, “Ageism in America.” The work revealed that prejudice was being perpetuated in the workplace, the media, in the form of elder abuse and especially in health- and long-term care. As an example, because healthcare professionals often assume that otherwise treatable or preventable conditions are a normal part of aging, they may treat older adults dismissively or even deny them care.
To reduce such a huge segment of our population to a stereotype was counterproductive to the individual psyche as well. If we are treated as inferior, we begin to believe we can’t continue contributing once we reach a certain age. Imagine what our country would be without the contributions of its older population. In that 2006 report, Dr. Butler wrote that beyond the damage to older individuals, “we fail to maximize the potential of older persons on either a paid or voluntary basis and deny them the opportunity to play a significant role in our cultural life.”
I first met Dr. Butler in 2000, during a Boston Museum of Science “Secrets of Aging,” exhibit that showcased the aging process through scientific research in biology, physiology, psychology and sociology. The idea that such an institution was willing to put on this show, was an indication that society was finally looking at aging as a normal part of life and not something to be feared —that aging can offer opportunities for spiritual, physical and educational growth.
This event summed up the philosophy of Dr. Butler.
“His advocacy and writings profoundly influenced every sphere of aging policy and programs, from the creation of an aging network to services for caregivers,” said New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg in an Associated Press story.
Unlike our parents, my generation is looking at the second time of life as an opportunity to embrace new beginnings in terms of work, volunteerism and lifestyle. Thanks in large part to the work done by Dr Butler, the nation has a more positive image of aging; we are facing fewer obstacles when chasing dreams. “Human beings need the freedom to live with change, to invent and reinvent themselves a number of times through their lives,” Dr. Butler wrote in one of his books.
Dr. Butler was a gerontologist, psychiatrist and the founding director of the National Institute on Aging, one of the National Institutes of Health. He wrote several books on aging, including the 1976 Pulitzer-winning Why Survive: Being Old in America and authored or co-authored other books including The New Love & Sex After 60, The Longevity Revolution and his latest book, The Longevity Prescription: The 8 Proven Keys to a Long, Healthy Life.
He was founding chairman of the nation’s first department of geriatrics, at New York’s Mount Sinai School of Medicine. And he was founding president of the International Longevity Center-USA in New York City, a research, policy and education center dedicated to the field of longevity and aging.
He was instrumental in research that established that senility was not inevitable with aging, but rather a consequence of disease.
He also is credited with the concept known as “Life Review,” a therapeutic device people can use to reflect on their lives — described as a “naturally occurring, universal mental process.”
The life review process is said to occur in response to the realization of approaching death. As we develop a sense of our mortality — and the concurrent vulnerability this produces — we are motivated to look back and reassess life in view of imminent death.
“Everyone should be thoughtful about their future,” said Dr. Butler during my interview with him in 2000.“Everyone should have a health bank, a longevity fund. So I would hope, it’s never too late to make changes. But it’s always too early to stop.”
My hope is that at the end of his life — as he battled leukemia — this man who positively influenced American perception of aging, was able to look back with satisfaction and a sense of fulfillment.
Sondra Shapiro is the executive editor of the Fifty Plus Advocate. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or read more at fiftyplusadvocate.com. Information for this report came from Associated Press, NIH and International Longevity Center material-.