Robert Butler, Trailblazing Advocate for the Elderly, Dies at 83

Dr. Robert Butler, a psychiatrist who was widely regarded as "the father of geriatrics" and who spent a career working to change the way society views and treats the elderly, has died at 83. He worked until three days before his death from acute leukemia, according to his obituary in the New York Times.

Dr. Butler's contribution to aging research and public policy was seminal and profound, and all who are elderly, or who someday will be, are the beneficiaries of his life and work.


Calling aging "the neglected stepchild of the human life cycle," Dr. Butler coined the word "ageism" and helped overturn ingrained conceptions of the old, including that they have little to contribute to society and that senility is an inevitable outgrowth of aging.

"Human beings need the freedom to live with change, to invent and reinvent themselves a number of times through their lives," Dr. Butler wrote in his 1975 Pulitizer Prize-winning book, Why Survive? Being Old in America. His most recent book, The Longevity Prescription, The 8 Proven Keys to a Long, Healthy Life, was published in May 2010.

In 1975, Dr. Butler created a National Institute on Aging at the National Institutes of Health and was its first director. He also helped start the American Association for Geriatric Psychiatry and the Alzheimers Disease Association, and in the early 1990s he founded the International Longevity Centre.

In 1995, President Bill Clinton named Dr. Butler chairman of the 1995 White House Conference on Aging.

"He really put geriatrics on the map," Dr. David B. Reuben, chief of the division of geriatrics at the University of California, Los Angeles, told the Times. Earlier in his career, Dr. Butler helped Ralph Nader investigate deficient care in nursing homes.

"[Dr. Butler] helped transform a culture that too often acted as if people's contributions to society ended on their 65th birthday," said Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius in a statement. "Dr. Butler's own career showed just how wrong that view was, as he continued to be an international leader in geriatrics right up until his death at age 83. For his trailblazing work to help seniors live rich and healthy lives -- to not just survive, but thrive -- all Americans, young and old, owe him an enormous debt."

Toward the end of his life, Dr. Butler said he feared death less than as a younger man. "After one has lived a life of meaning," he wrote decades earlier in Why Survive?, "death may lose much of its terror, for what we fear most is not really death, but a meaningless and absurd life."