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Remembering Robert Butler: A Wakeup Call

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Sometimes the death of someone you care about can be a slap in the face to take perspective on your own problems in life and to keep living that life to its fullest. When I saw last night on the news (see the New York Times write-up here) that Dr. Robert Butler, arguably the most important pioneer in the field of aging, died this weekend, I had such a wakeup call. A flood of thoughts and questions went through me: “How can he be gone? Was he really 83 years old? He was so young. I had no idea he even had Leukemia. He didn’t seem sick. I will miss him, even though I barely knew him. I wouldn’t have my career if it weren’t for him. I wish I had told him ‘thank you.’”


I have just finished Dr. Butler’s latest book, The Longevity Prescription. And I was planning to call him next week to see if he would keynote an independent living conference. I didn’t know Dr. Butler well (he would tell me to call him “Robert” or even “Bob” but that just never felt right to me). I only met him twice but can remember each of those experiences in explicit detail, as if filmed in slow motion in my memory.


Dr. Butler came to our Intel lab a few years ago to give a talk about longevity and to see some of our independent living prototypes he had heard about. In the frenetic and frantic world of my work life, I am embarrassed—appalled even—that I hadn’t had time to do my homework on our guest. I had no idea who he was and was kind of irritated that I needed to interrupt my “important work day” to hear “some speaker” tell me facts I already knew about old people. Five minutes before I was supposed to introduce him, someone handed me his biography: Pulitzer prize-winning author and founder of some of the most important organizations I work with regularly: the National Institute on Aging, the Alzheimer’s Association, the American Association of Geriatric Psychiatry. Uh oh. I was suddenly ashamed—and nervous. What could I possibly have to say to the man who basically invented the field of geriatric medicine?


He proceeded to give an impassioned, almost poetic, lecture about the principles of longevity, the history of aging research in America, the challenges of ageism in our society, and the biological changes that occur in our bodies as we age. I was riveted. The audience was riveted. And here was this gracious, gentle, ego-less man—this unassuming and brilliant pioneer—spending half his day to teach us what he had learned about aging and asking us to teach him what we were learning about chronic disease management and social support technologies for seniors. He soaked up every prototype we showed to him and couldn’t stop himself from brainstorming new features and possibilities once we had helped him imagine new ways that technologies could support independence at home. It was a magical day.


Then, about 18 months ago, I spent some time with Dr. Butler at an event in New York talking with him about the challenges I was having in getting anyone to pay attention to aging issues in the health reform bill. I told him, “This is crazy…I’ve been trying for eleven years to get government and industry to prepare for Global Aging…to treat the field of technology for independent living as a real and legitimate field…and now we have this health reform bill but people are, once again, ignoring the demographic elephant in the room and ignoring the potential to reinvent long term care.”


Dr. Butler smiled, breathed deeply, paused. (He seemed comfortable with silences, even though I always feel desperate to fill them.) Then, with no malice or ego whatsoever, he said: “Eric, I’ve been championing these causes for more than five decades, and you have to be patient. It took 20 years just to get anyone to take aging seriously as a field—and it is still on the margins of mainstream medicine most of the time. It takes time to change the culture. It takes time to un-do ageism and stereotypes. It takes time for people to embrace the kinds of technologies and policies you are pushing for because they are not ready to deal with the challenge of thinking about getting older or, god forbid, their own deaths!”


Time seemed to stop in our conversation. Then I stammered out: “But we don’t have time for all this denial…we don’t have time to be patient…we can’t afford to avoid these issues because that leads to so much needless suffering and expense. It doesn’t have to be this way.”


He smiled again. He paused again. He thought again. “Ah, good, you understand the challenges, and you have a passion for this. I think you’ll be far happier in life fighting the good fight for something you are passionate about rather than something that is popular. And some day, I promise you, your passion will become what’s popular—be ready for that moment!”


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Over the past couple of months, I’ve been in the doldrums and have taken an unplanned, unintended break from this blog. Honestly, I’ve been a bit burned out by healthcare reform, a bit exhausted by so many trips to Washington with no real results for moving the Global Aging agenda forward, and a bit intimidated by some blog hate mail that I should never have allowed under my skin. I’ve lost my voice and my passion for a while, wondering if it’s worth even fighting these battles that seem so pointless and progress-less at times.


But Dr. Butler’s life—and his words—remind me again that it’s far better to live out your life’s passions than to go with the flow of what’s popular or politically palatable for the moment. (In fact, it’s one of the keys to longevity that he describes.) He has become a role model for me—a “hero” even—which is an almost anachronistic term that I don’t use lightly. If only I could have a quarter of the impact on the world of such scope and such positivity that Dr. Butler achieved, then my life would be complete. And his death—as much as I will miss him—is a much needed wakeup call to speak up, act up, and never give up.


Dr. Butler…thank you!


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