The Father of Geriatrics Acted Anything But Old
Robert Butler was known as the father of geriatrics, but aside from his white hair, there wasn't much old about him.
Butler, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author who brought unprecedented attention to the study of aging and coined the term "ageism," died this week of acute leukemia. He was 83.
Butler was energetic and vital to the end, the embodiment of the philosophy he preached about living a long, happy life, according to Jon Pynoos, a professor at the University of Southern California's Ethel Percy Andrus Gerontology Center. "He was an icon of aging."
Like many others, Pynoos came to know Butler through his seminal work on aging, Why Survive: Being Old in America, which won the Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction in 1976. "It was one of the reasons I got into the field," Pynoos says.
In Why Survive, Butler provided one of the first comprehensive looks at the problems of the elderly--the discrimination they face and the irony of modern medicine's ability to keep people alive longer but do nothing to make sure they enjoy it. "As much as any one individual, Bob Butler invented geriatrics," says Jim Emerman, executive vice president at Civic Ventures, the Bay Area think tank on aging and work.
The new way of thinking Butler advocated in Why Survive and the reforms he proposed in the book and his subsequent writing helped change the public perception of what it means to grow older, and paved the way for what has been called "productive aging" or "successful aging."
Butler went on to become founding director of the National Institute on Aging where, according to fellow scientists, he was one of the first to separate the process of aging from diseases that often accompany it. He also created the first medical school department of geriatrics and later founded the International Longevity Center, the New York City nonprofit supporting old age research and education in the United States and internationally.
Butler even gained a measure of pop culture status when he dated Barbara Walters in 2007 and appeared on her TV special on aging the following year.
Friends remember him as tireless advocate for training more doctors in geriatrics. "He never stopped railing against the drastic shortage of physicians and nurses trained to meet the needs of an aging population," says Emerman, a former executive director of the American Society on Aging.
Friends describe him as charming and warm, the type of person who could meet people and instantly make contact. "He was a good listener and as famous as he was, you always felt you were sitting next to someone who cared," Pynoos says.
New York Times blogger Joshua Tapper, who conducted one of Butler's last interviews less than two weeks ago, described an energetic octogenarian who still worked 60 hours a week, sipped Coke and railed against do-nothing retirees. "I think a lot of older people are sitting on their asses, playing golf, and not making a contribution to society," Butler told him.
The last time Pynoos saw him, Butler was promoting his latest book, The Longevity Revolution, and was already hard at work on the next one. Pynoos asked his friend to autograph a copy of Why Survive. Butler inscribed this message: "To a loving, prosperous, productive, happy and fulfilling life." According to Pynoos, that's exactly what Butler savored right until the end.
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