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The Longevity Prescription of Dr. Robert Butler: Nurture Your Relationships

category_bug_journal2.gif As Dr. Robert N. Butler makes clear in Chapter 2 of his book, The Longevity Prescription titled “Nurture Your Relationships,” we should not “underestimate the value of touching, hugging, and sharing...”

He is discussing the people he calls “elemental connections,” loved ones and intimate friends, (noting that he will discuss other kinds of close relationships later in the book).

“A loved one might be a spouse, one of your children, a sibling, a parent, or a grandparent. Intimate friends, a trusted coworker, and a neighbor might belong here too...”

“You must cherish them as they cherish you. They are the ones who give us reason to live.”

Study after study over many years show that strong emotional attachments are the best (although not only) predictors of health in old age. Acknowledging that while some people have a natural ability to make and maintain friendships, Butler realizes that others of us need to work at it, but that it is a skill that can be developed.

He gives a long list of ideas that can enhance friendship. My favorites are those that remind some of us, who enjoy the sound of our own voices a bit too much, to learn to listen better and give others a chance to speak. His suggestions for making new friends are familiar, but I was most interested in his first – something I had never articulated to myself:

Decide what you desire in a friend...Among the likely attributes is trust. A priority may be a person who shares your sense of humor or likes to read to go to the movies. Good friends are curious and caring, patient, nonjudgmental, and do not take advantage...What you desire in a friend is probably very similar to what a potential friend will want to see in you.”

The one place I part company with Dr. Butler is this:

“As life's demands begin to lessen during the aging years, our need for others with whom to share our feelings, insights, and beliefs can increase.”

Maybe for some, but not me. God save me from the large number of people with whom I kept in regular touch during my working years. I called them all friends in those days (a pre-internet Facebook?), but they - however many late nights we spent in groups solving our personal, professional and all the world's problems after too much wine - were mostly acquaintances.

Even so, no one can disagree with Butler's bottom line in this section of the chapter on nurturing friendships: “How important are friends?” he asks. “Friendship is priceless.”

The focus of this chapter, however, is intimate friends and Butler devotes the majority of it to a discussion of elder sexuality which as far as I can tell is the last taboo in our sex-soaked culture. What little popular acknowledgment there is of sex in later years can be divided mostly into two categories: old people probably don't do it but if they do, “eew” (usually from young comedians) and embarrassingly salacious books (usually written by 60-plus women) on how to get as much as you did at age 25.

Dr. Butler is, instead, realistic:

“Sexuality is dynamic; it varies over time with age, health, relationship status, and other factors. That is all entirely normal. A gradual diminution in sexual interest and activity in the aging years is also common, but the notion that people of a certain age become asexual simply is not true.”

Butler's positive attitude about elder sexuality is nicely summed up in a story he tells about Chief Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes who, says Butler, “had it right”:

“Not only did he serve on the Court until age 90 (three cheers for longevity and the lively mind!), but Justice Holmes remained available to other stimuli, too. As Holmes once said upon watching a pretty girl walk by: 'Oh, to be eighty again.'”

In this chapter, there are excellent, straightforward sections on age-related sexual dysfunction for men and for women and what to do about it, including the all-important, talk to your physician.

“The passing of years can have an impact on your sex life. For men, the production of testosterone tends to fall and erectile difficulties to increase; for women the physiological changes that accompany menopause may produce a number of changes, ranging from vaginal dryness to diminished desire.

“For many people, however, these prove to be minor impediments and the practice of intimacy – physical and emotional connectedness – for many older people continues to be pleasurable, rewarding, and fulfilling.”

I can't leave this subject without telling you about Len, a neighbor on my New York City block. At this time, we had been friendly for 10 or 15 years. I had helped him get started with a computer and we often had long conversations sitting together on my front stoop on warm, summer evenings while his ancient dog rested at our feet.

As I was hurrying toward the corner on my way to work one morning in 1998, Len, who was about 85 at the time and had been widowed for many years, was just outside his door. I greeted him as I rushed past, but he called out for me to come back. “I've got some terrific news I just have to tell you, Ronni.”

“Yes, Len...” I said as I backtracked.

Clearly excited, he grabbed my arm and loud enough for anyone else on the block to hear too, he said, “Viagra works!”

He'd never told me before that he'd had a girlfriend for the past couple of years and I heard a little more than I needed to know about them that morning. But that doesn't mean I wasn't happy for him.

Butler describes young adult sex as “urgent and explosive...biological, instinctive, exciting and energetic.” It often leads to conception and is, he says, the first language of sex.

”As we age, however, we begin to understand as the young cannot that sex is not merely a matter of athleticism and productivity. Sexuality has a powerful emotional component; it is communicative as well as physical. It is later in life that we reach a deeper understanding of this 'second language' of sex.”

You might be interested in another book by Dr. Butler and his late wife, Myrna Lewis: Love and Sex After Sixty.

Your assignment for next week, my friends – if you are following along - is to read Chapter 3: Seek Essential Sleep.

The Longevity Prescription Series
A Proposal
Chaptr 1: Mental Vitality
Chapter 3: Seek Essential Sleep

At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Susan Gulliford: V-J Day: For Uncle Mel


I am following Dr. Butler's book along with you and enjoying both it and your responses. Terrific book!

I, too, disagree with Dr. Butler about our need for an expanding social life as we age. I feel that I need to be more selective about how I spend my time and with whom I spend it. I am fortunate that I have a wonderful husband who is the very best companion and a few good friends but my husband and I find the best way to spend our time is together. Gladys


I thought your next assigment would be to get laid...

Apologies to TGB readers who took offense at my previous comment, but it just flew off my fingers before I realized the public forum might not get my humor.

Social graces are to Texans what heat rash is to eskimos.

I have never wanted a 'lot' of friends but rather a few very close ones. I like to know and be known but that cannot be with a lot of people. I don't really think I need it as such but I benefit from it when I have those deep relationships. I don't like a lot of superficial relationships as they demand time that interferes with other things I do need to do. Friendships do take time.

If I may, I can agree with you, Ronni, and with Dr. Butler about those work-years friends.
For me, those people at work were just acquaintances, and there were only a very few years when I shared even drinks after work with them.

I do find, however, that my "need for others with whom to share our {MY} feelings, insights, and beliefs" has increased. It's not in the numbers of those people for me, but in the quality. And I find that a few of them exist for me in this virtual format. I have only two friends who are close in that they live near enough to see regularly, but with the internet and Skype I can still enjoy a very close relationship with one or two more.

These are the people who really know me in ways that acquaintances never will. Even some who think they love me, may not know me in the ways I mean. And the increase in my need is not for numbers, but for that kind of knowingness. To these few, I can bare my very soul, trust them to keep my confidences, and call them in the wee dark hours if that is what I want.

I could/would not consider going on if I had none; they feel like life to me.

Just returned from errands and checking one of my favorite post.
First, Rain I am right there with you.
Second, Cowtown Pattie - you gave me my morning smile!!

I am following and thinking about Dr. Butler's book. What a pragmatic little volume!

Putting on my "Gay and Gray" hat, this chapter made me reflect as I often do on the reality that my generation of gay folks often have less or more problematic connections to family members than younger people probably will. On the other hand, building alternative friendship circles has been the stuff of survival for many of us, so we may know something that serves us well as we age.

Like you Ronni, my work has long involved "knowing" lots of people. Hundreds in fact. And I find those connections more wearing than comforting as I age. Butler may be right that living into age will demand that I cultivate more deeper connections than the rather shallow ones that fill space.

Also, on friendships, I observed as my mother edged toward a pretty healthy 90, one of the hardest things for her was the passing away of the people who shared her history. If we live long enough, we'll experience that. I don't know the implications, but finding out is preferable to the alternative ... :-)

Ronni, I figure I'm in good company since Cowtown Pattie's remark came to me after I read your post today. Like Ernestine, it made me chuckle. This is good stuff. Thanks. Dee

When I was in High School we had to take a personality test and I scored near the top of needing to have a lot of people around me. That may have been because I grew up in a zoo with people coming and going all the time.

Now I don't like to be in crowds and am very selective with the friends I choose. So Butler had it backward as far as I am concerned. I have two very good friends that I can share all my intimacies with and that's all I need. There are others that I consider friends and I have many Internet friends that I feel close to, but I do not need a social life.

When I started the book I thought all I needed to have a meaningful and healthy old age was to eat better and exercise. Now I find I have to have a sex life. ;-). It has been so many years since I had one that I feel like a virgin and probably resemble one physically, too.

Pattie, you are a hoot and a half and I will laugh all morning over your comment.

LOL - thanks, ya'll. I was afraid somebody's panties might get in a wad...

I shudda known this crowd invented "poke fun"...

(Hmmm, I think I'll tell Kman tonight he has homework; Doctor's orders.)

Gladys, I'm with you. I've been basically an introvert all my life and have never really enjoyed socializing. I have a few work-friends, wonderful long-term neighbor-friends and now some fairly recent online acquaintances, but that's about it. My husband is the same way. We've been joined at the hip in a figurative sense since we met almost 35 years ago. We're happy with each other and content with how our lives have turned out. The only problem as we've grown older is what happens if he predeceases me or vice versa? Life will be very difficult for the one who survives longer. Statistically, that would probably be me. However, my mother died at age 69 (I'm 73) and my father lived to be 84 (my husband is 80), so who knows?

I don't know about all this, but I am redecorating our bedroom and getting a king-size bed. That should perk us up!

@ Cowtown Pattie,

You go, Girl. I'm still laughing at your remark.

It made my day.

I agree with Kate's comments. Have't read the book but I am interpreting the Butler quote to refer to quality rather than quantity. I don't feel the need for a huge number of friends, but I do value close friends. Whether my need for that has increased or not with age I am not sure, but I am grateful for the quality of friends I have at this stage of my life.

Ha ha ha thanks Cowtown Patty, your first remark made me laugh and the followup was pretty funny, too. Love your style.

I got the Butler book but haven't had time to start it yet cause I was in a 9-day retreat, but I will catch up.

Last year, I decided to go on a people-meeting adventure, and started making appointments with locals I always wanted to meet, people in theater, arts and human potential areas mostly. It continues to be great fun and full of learning. I have many friends of 15-30 years' duration too. Meaningful human contact is essential.

One of the hardest realities I must accept is that the area where I lived for 30 years, Cape Cod, is too expensive for me now. The main sadness is leaving all my friends. It is hard for me to make friends, and it took many years to meet all the people I now know on the Cape. They are acquaintaces and some a bit more. None are what I would consider truely deep friends. Still, they are of supreme importance to me. I always wondered why older people would retire to area's they'd never lived in before. And I still dont know. I have tried hard to find a place for myself on the Cape and seem to have failed. So now I am condemned to the frigid north where I know no one.

There is a longing/yearning for meaningful human connection,maybe because we have the time and also realise what is really important in life.I am no different and looking for the same and it will indeed be a wonderful prescription.

Normally in my FHA HECM work, I sit at a table across from my potential client. One time, when I entered the home the 87 year old beautiful Lady said, "Come, Jim, sit beside me on the sofa." I did, whereupon the Woman through her arms around me tightly and hugged me for what seemed five minutes. When she was done (probably 40 seconds later), she said "You know, Jim, the thing I miss most about not having my Husband of 55 years around is just being able to hug him and have him hug me back!" Believe me, I gave her my best Scorpio Hug I could muster that early in the day. Young people, I am sure, have no idea what I'm talking about. Anyone who thinks sex and sex appeal are still not important to most Seniors best think again; hell I've heard of romance in wheelchairs in nursing homes, even. ("Willard, do you have the damn brake sit, for Heavens sake?")

Ha, ha, right on, thanks Pattie! And one of things changing in the world of elder care in Washington State is changing the rules and ideas that "homes" big or little can decree that resident's doors must always be open, that they have a right to walk in uninvited as though it were a hospital, and that there should be no hanky panky, etc. This issue came to head in our town when an 80+ woman kept her new boyfriend over night and the WA State Ombudsman "helped" the home(s) see that she has a right to privacy and as full a life as she can. I say hooray.

As for friends I too am somewhat of a loner, there must be a better word, meaning content on my own but not people avoidant. It's partially from moving 14 times from 1st grade through high school due to Dad's career. And the whole family read a lot. I have three close friends, all located at least five hours away and one here locally. I keep in contact frequently mostly via the web, words and pictures. I do have three sisters of assorted ages whom I love dearly but there's one I am much closer than the others, she is 20 years younger than I. My friend here is 15 years younger and the three I must travel to see are near my own age. That's the most friends I have ever had. I watched as my Dad's friends, he had many, died one by one, including Mom, until he was nearly the only one left standing, literally and figuratively. Other than his family, he remained unwilling to connect closely again to the end.

I moved from Seattle which I miss but can no longer afford to an inland desert small town to be with family. Now both my sons are here and six granddaughters, as well as my daughter-in-law, who thank God is the daughter I never had and a jewel.

I think Dr. Butler's observations and research is good but like everything else I take just what I can use and it isn't all for everyone.

I have the book and am reading it but am behind with commenting. Busy week and weekend ahead. I'll have my grandson who is 7 from Friday after school until Tuesday morning when I take him to school an hour away!

Anyway, I prefer quality to quantity with friends.

Sex? I remember it. Not sure it will ever happen again and am not sure how I feel about that since it's all in the abstract for me now. LOL

Cowpattie, keep up the great comments!! That was so funny!

I'm enjoying reading Longevity Prescription and I'm enjoying really thinking about what I am reading. I've decided to start a list of resolutions to post on the wall :-) So far I have
. Stimulate my brain
. Seek out new experiences
. make healthy life style choices - fruits and vegetables, exercise, no extra weight, limited alcohol
. nurture my friendships
. make new friends

Maybe I'll add Have more sex.... but then I probably shouldn't post it on the wall. It would gross out the kids :-)

I am writing my detailed comments on my blog at


Marion, you sound like a very positive, creative, health-oriented person, but I must admit that your resolutions sound rather like a To-Do list, which is a bit daunting. There aren't a whole lot of advantages in this world to being 70+, but one of them is NOT living by the mandate of a To-Do list. (I do realize that it's not intended as a mandate, and the choice is up to each of us.)

My Mom always said she particularly enjoyed having friendships with people in a wide age range. I certainly have found that to be true also.

Am fascinated with the brain functions in every human aspect i.e. normal vs deficits, etc. so recently started "Brain In Love" renamed from Brain and Sex, I think -- probably to make it more commercial or less threatening with "that word." Lots of really good neurological info for both sexes so sent my kids copies.

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