Robert Butler's Legacy Lives On

By Achenbaum, Andrew | Aging Today, July/August 2011 | Go to article overview

Robert Butler's Legacy Lives On


Achenbaum, Andrew, Aging Today


Dr. Robert Neil Butler (1927-2010) was aging's visionary- a giant among luminaries in the American Society on Aging's Hall of Fame. His enthusiasm for life was infectious, his affability appealing and his lively turn of mind stirred imaginations.

"I always thought Bob Butler would live forever," wrote Trudy Lieberman in the July 2010 Columbia Journalism Review. "After all, he was Mr. Live a Long Life, and preached the gospel of helping Americans do just that."

It is hard to believe that Robert Butler died more than a year ago. His contributions and legacy touch so many lives, especially those of us who are baby boomers.

A Path with Passion and Vision

More than any other American, Butler made Alzheimer's disease a household word. Scientists now devote considerable energy probing and debating the etiology and treatment of Alzheimer's, as well as its similarities and differences with other forms of dementia, Parkinson's disease and other manifestations of mental illness prevalent in later years.

The National Institute on Aging (NIA), for which Butler served as founding director from 1976 to 1982, continues to be the world's primary generator of investigations on growing older. As he envisioned in his blueprint, Our Future Selves, the NIA funds important studies of the psychological makeup of older men and women, as well as the social relationships they have with kin, peers, youth and other groups. Convinced that research made it possible to promote healthy, productive aging, Butler constantly pled that more funds be allocated to NIA, and to support age-related projects undertaken by other centers at the National Institutes of Health.

Butler championed geriatric education and training at the NIA. He also established America's first freestanding department of geriatrics at Mt. Sinai Medical Center, New York. The field grows- though far more slowly than Dr. Butler anticipated. Some of his mentees- Diane Meier, Barbara Paris and Howard Fillit- have become renowned physician-scientists. Others, such as Marie Bernard,' credit Butler with advancing their careers.

Thanks to Butler's foresight, social workers, nurses, occupational therapists, dentists and epidemiologists- as well as people trained as (super) specialists who have acquired learning in geriatrics and palliative care- now are part of interdisciplinary teams that seek to prevent disease and promote health across aging cohorts. We do not have enough healthcare professionals with necessary expertise to address the needs and desires of baby boomers as they become eligible for Medicare. But thanks to Butler and his collaborators, we have a good sense of priorities and best practices in geriatrics and palliative care.

A New Home for the ILC

In 1990, Butler founded The International Longevity Center (ILC), which aimed "to study the impact of population aging and advancing longevity from a socioeconomic perspective, health perspective and quality of life." The ILC pursued an ambitious agenda for research, teaching and outreach, and became a mecca for teams of international scholars, scientists and public officials to (re)examine interdisciplinary issues that gave rise to what Butler envisioned as "the new gerontology."

Dividends from what Butler called the "Longevity Revolution"- opportunities to reshape social services and healthcare policies, promote civic engagement through productive aging, address gender inequities and wealth disparities, and petition the United Nations to be a changeagent for stanching elder abuse and discrimination-were central to Butler's agenda. Butler used a diversity of media outlets to get the message out, and sought to sensitize journalists to gerontology through the ILCs Age Boom Academy.

The ILC is now situated at Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health. …

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