Robert N. Butler, 83

Robert N. Butler dies, 'Father of modern gerontology' was 83

Robert N. Butler coined the term
Robert N. Butler coined the term "ageism" and founded organizations dedicated to the research and care of senior citizens. (Larry Barns/mount Sinai Medical Center)
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By Emma Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Robert N. Butler, 83, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author, psychiatrist and expert on aging who helped illuminate the "quiet despair, deprivation, desolation and muted rage" that he said characterized the act of growing old in America, and who co-wrote a best-selling sex manual for senior citizens, died July 4 at Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York. He had leukemia.

For more than half a century, Dr. Butler was a leading advocate in academic and policy circles for the dignified treatment and care of the elderly. He coined the term "ageism" to describe systematic discrimination against older people and challenged lawmakers, scientists and medical students to consider how to create a health-care system in which Americans could grow old gracefully.

"Bob was certainly the person, more than any other single individual, who helped create the modern notion that aging is a time of choice, of opportunity, of growth," said Dan Perry, who leads the Washington-based Alliance for Aging Research. "He was really the father of modern gerontology."

Dr. Butler was appointed the first director of the National Institute on Aging, part of the National Institutes of Health, in the 1970s. Later, he established a geriatrics department at Mount Sinai, one of the first such comprehensive departments at an American medical school. At the time of his death, he was president and chief executive of the International Longevity Center-USA, a New York-based nonprofit research organization he founded in 1990.

He was perhaps best known by the general public as the co-author -- with his wife, social worker Myrna I. Lewis -- of the manual "Sex After 60," first published in 1976.

The book, republished since as "Love and Sex After 60," offered advice for dealing with everything from the complicated emotions of remarriage to the mechanics of aging bodies. (Can't hear what your lover is saying? Just sit closer, the authors advised.)

"Love and Sex After 60" was for several years in the 1990s the nation's best-selling large-print book.

"Some might mistake it for a simplistic how-to book, and it certainly does contain a treasure trove of helpful hints," wrote author Natalie Davis Spingarn in her 1994 Washington Post review. "But it is much more than that. It is a book with a message that comes through loud, clear and passionate: Our increasing numbers of older people are as entitled to the same pleasures and fulfillment as other adults."

Dr. Butler's career began in 1955, when as a researcher at the National Institute of Mental Health he helped conduct one of the first long-term studies of older people.

Among that study's groundbreaking conclusions was that senility is not an inevitable consequence of age and that psychiatric care is not wasted on the elderly, as was commonly believed. The researchers also found that older people were more contented and tended to live longer when their lives were filled with goals, structure and a sense of purpose.

Through his work as a clinician and researcher, Dr. Butler saw firsthand how difficult it was for the elderly to find adequate health care and live with dignity. They were treated by society as useless, warehoused in nursing homes staffed by woefully undertrained caregivers and seen by doctors who knew little about the unique needs of people in the latter stages of life.

Dr. Butler compiled those observations in his 1975 book "Why Survive? Being Old in America," which won the Pulitzer for general nonfiction in 1976. "We have shaped a society which is extremely harsh to live in when one is old," he wrote. "The tragedy of old age is not the fact that each of us must grow old and die but that the process of doing so has been made unnecessarily and at times excruciatingly painful, humiliating, debilitating, and isolating through insensitivity, ignorance, and poverty."

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