All of us at the International Longevity Centre - UK were deeply saddened by the sudden death of Dr Robert Butler, a world leader in the field of gerontology, psychiatry and geriatric medicine. His loss deprives us of someone whose influence on policy, practice and research into ageing was unique and for which he was renowned throughout the world.
For me, as Chief Executive of the ILC-UK, his death is in an even more profound loss because he was a personal friend over more than 30 years, and the founder and inspiration of the ILC ‘family’ of centres across the world. He and his wife spent much time when they were in the UK in my home and I had the privilege of knowing his family and benefiting from their warmth and genuine friendship.
I also learned from Bob about the deprivations of his early life in a dysfunctional family, which resulted in him being brought up by his grandparents, who undoubtedly inspired him with their resilience as well as their love. Perhaps it was this love that formed his determination to highlight the need for older people to live in dignity and to be able to fulfil their potential in our societies, where prejudice and discrimination still affect too many of us. His early Pulitzer Prize winning book criticising care homes in the United States, was an example of his huge influence in managing to change things for the better, a determination which stayed with him throughout his life.
I got to know Bob when he was the first Director of the National Institute on Aging, where he achieved an enormous amount but his lifetime of campaigning, demonstrating good practice and challenging any that he found wanting, in his determination to achieve a more positive quality of life for the older population, was marked by a huge number of academic and popular books, articles, speeches and other forms of advocacy. Lately this has included ILC research and policy analysis, which has helped to improve the situation of older people, not just in the US, but around the world. I have had the privilege of sharing platforms with him in many countries, in testifying with him to Senate and Congressional Committees, and watched him making powerful arguments for change for the better to the United Nations, to the World Health Organisation, and to other inter-governmental bodies. His work in this respect has greatly contributed to a wider recognition globally of the importance of demographic change, its benefits and the challenges it presents to us, both at home and internationally.
He was angry at the loss of dignity experienced by so many older people and coined the word ‘ageism’ to describe such negative views and their effects on a sector of the population who should be seen as a dynamic force within national economies as well as a huge resource to civil society. His continuing energy was demonstrated by the fact his latest book was published just three weeks before he died.
Watching him chair a White House Conference on Aging in Washington made me appreciate the affection people had for him, as well as the admiration and respect he so justly commanded. He always had time for family and friends, whether taking grandsons to the Galapagos Islands or spending time with us walking around the sights and historical buildings of London.
To pay adequate tribute to Bob Butler we all need to work hard, continuing to promote the causes he believed in so passionately and proving that the ageing of society is something we can justly celebrate, demonstrating the potential of older people in modern society to promote wealth and prosperity and not to be seen merely as a burden. We all need to ensure that people’s lives remain purposeful and fulfilling, whatever their age and we owe it to Bob Butler to work together to achieve this goal.
Baroness Sally Greengross
International Longevity Centre – UK.
Date :03 August 2010
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