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“Aging is a Triumph, Not a Tragedy”

So spake the great geriatrician, psychiatrist and elder advocate, Robert N. Butler, who died in December 2010. According to his biographer, W. Andrew Achenbaum, he helped

“ transform the study of aging from a marginal specialty into an intellectually vibrant field of inquiry.”

Personally, I doubt I would have become an elder advocate myself without having had Butler's books to teach me.

Robert N. Butler cover artRobert N. Butler, M.D. is the title of this just-published biography of the great man who won a Pulitzer Prize for his 1975 book, Why Survive? Being Old in America and before that, in 1968, coined the term “ageism” as an analog to racism and sexism.

”Butler well understood that ignorance, prejudice, and stereotypes clouded the vision of vital, productive, fruitful aging that he wished to promulgate,” writes Achenbaum.

“In late life,” he continues, “Butler concluded that ageism was even more pernicious than he initially had realized...Butler now called ageism a disease, a morbid fear of decline and death that crippled individuals.”

Robert Butler may not have crushed ageism during his long career but his other achievements transformed attitudes and beliefs about old age that continue to help elders' well being now and will continue to do so into the future.

Butler was appointed by President Gerald Ford to be the first director of the National Institute on Aging. Later he established the first U.S. department of geriatrics at Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York City.

In 1990, he founded the International Longevity Center (ILC-USA) to pursue the study of health and productivity of old people. Among the organization's projects was the Age Boom Academy created in 2000 to

”...deepen the understanding on the part of 150 journalists of how the perils and promises of societal aging affected their respective news beats. Ideas germinated in the academy often found mass circulation,” explains Achenbaum.

In 2009, I was privileged to be one of the dozen journalists that year at the week-long Age Boom Academy – all expenses, as every year, paid in full. Dr. Butler brought together the crème de la crème of age researchers and experts from every sub-field imaginable and by the end, it was like being granted a masters degree in aging. Here is one of my stories about the Age Boom Academy.

[DISCLOSURE: Achenbaum quotes from my 2008 interview interview with Dr. Butler which you can read here.]

Achenbaum, who is professor of social work and history in the Graduate School of Social Work at the University of Houston, does a fine job of recounting Butler's achievements that benefit elders - the remarkably large number of reasons the book is subtitled, Visionary of Healthy Aging.

But it is the many quotations from Achenbaum's previously unpublished conversations with Butler along with the book's epilogue – Butler's unfinished “life review” in his own words – that most captured my attention.

Some thoughts from Butler you too may find provocative:

“Why do we have so much trouble enjoying the moment? This was not as true when we were children.”
“When a young person writes a novel he writes an autobiography; when an old person writes an autobiography, he writes a novel.”
“There is a dark side to the lives of those of wealth and privilege; they do not need to carry out the most elemental aspects of existence, the preparing of their own food and taking care of their own personal needs. In a perverse sense, elementality is a luxury of poverty.”
“Old age is no longer equivalent to disease, infirmity, frailty, decrepitude and slowing down. The brain is proving to be subject to repair and growth and this plasticity promises greater cognitive health.”
“The challenge is how to better understand, shape and value this new old age. Older persons themselves should define this portion of their lives, and not passively allow the culture to do so.

“They are the pioneers who have interest into the redefined old age and do not accept aging and disability as inevitable, unpreventable and untreatable. Society and culture, of course, have catching up to do.”

At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Alice Steele: The Hellman's Mayonnaise Caper


I love the last half of the quote "When and old person writes an autobiography, he writes a novel." Truer words were never spoken.

Again, a thank you.

I think seniors are responsible for a whole lot of this thinking. I moved into a suburb 20 years ago that I didn't realize was populated almost entirely by people over 65 at the time so I have spent a lot of time just observing. The main thing I see is a whole culture of denial. I am talking about people over 85 with no plans to give up driving, some who have no will or POA, who will change the subject if you bring up "dying with dignity" and who perversely avoid hanging around anybody who is sick, they just drop off the face of the earth. I am 53 and I think about those things and they do not.

Why is there no routine cognitive testing done at ages where you have a 50/50 chance of dementia and yet doctors will still do mammograms and all sorts of other testing.

Denial is what seniors seem to do best but judging from my fellow boomers, it's not something we will emulate. Old-old age is about being dependent, sick and dying that's EXACTLY what it is. The only problem I have is that at 53 I am lumped into the same senior demographic as my 93 year old neighbour. Hillary Clinton is hitting it full on now and it's really because with no way of subdividing aging into categories and with nobody admitting they have dementia or any physical limitation this means that everyone over 60 is suspect.

His book will be a definite addition to my Kindle reader wish list

Won't it be great when we are no longer defined by age. We'll just be a person...who may be fun to be with (or not)...may be really aware of what's going on in the world (or not)...may be super talented (or not). Just a person. Age be damned.

I think it's changing tho. People are starting to appreciate what cool people we elders are.

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