Wisdom and Words from a Gerontologist
Robert N. Butler, an Appreciation
By Mick Rood
Gerontologist Dr. Robert N. Butler died this summer. He should be remembered. Better yet, his attitude should be emulated. Butler coined the term “ageism” more than 40 years ago to describe how older people were discriminated against in the United States. He had a special perspective, having grown up with his grandparents. His grandfather died when he was 7, leaving his grandmother to raise him during the Depression.
Butler was not a whiner. He buttressed his case for better treatment of the elderly with statistic after cold statistic, with one irrefutable observation after another. Describing a literature review released by his organization, the International Longevity Center-USA, in a 2006 interview with the New York Times, Butler noted:
“According to the government, 1.5 million older Americans live in nursing homes, 90 percent of which have inadequate staffing. Older people also experience health care discrimination. Physicians are often less aggressive in treating their illnesses than they are with younger patients. Medical schools don’t teach much, if anything, about elder care. You almost never see a medical student in a nursing home. And you don’t see them taught much about death or dying, either. Moreover, Medicare doesn’t cover what a lot of older people need – long-term care. The hospice coverage offered is minimal. Medications? Forty percent of all prescriptions are written for older people, but many weren’t tested on older patients in clinical trials – this despite the fact that some drugs act differently in older bodies.”
Butler’s wife, Myrna I. Lewis, died in 2005. But as with his work, Butler did not let this tragedy drag him down.
“One of the many ways Myrna’s death affects me is that we can’t reminisce together,” he told the Times. “But it’s worse than that; there is just this terrific loneliness. You keep going. Being left alone is one of the facts of aging. There’s data that suggests that people can actually die of a broken heart, become sick because of it.
“Since her death, I’ve been very protective of myself, quite purposely. I go to bed earlier. I’ve been more thoughtful about my diet and activity levels. I pace myself. On weekends, I have this walking club. A whole group of us walk six miles through the (New York) city. I feel like I have to take care of myself. I still have work to do. And it’s important work!”
Butler has left us a lengthy reading list to draw from. He wrote about poor nursing home conditions, ways to live a longer life, sex after 60 and in his latest book, The Longevity Revolution, he described the transformation of America. In the last century, Butler explained that the average American had gained 30 more years of life. But medicine, on many fronts, has not kept pace with the needs of those growing numbers of older persons, he said. An earlier book, Why Survive? Being Old in America, won the Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction in 1976.
The International Longevity Center, www.ilcusa.org which Butler founded in 1990, can be found on the Web. The center’s site features research results, news on older Americans, ways to support related causes and to volunteer.
Dr. Butler died of leukemia at the age of 83, about eight years longer than the average American man now has to live. He told The Saturday Evening Post two years ago that he had changed his mind about life, in that he feared death less than when he was say, 35.
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