The Passing of Dr. Robert Butler

And what he meant for journalists and journalism

I always thought Bob Butler would live forever. After all, he was Mr. Live A Long Life, and preached the gospel of helping Americans do just that. I never thought of Bob getting old, although the last time I saw him, about a year ago at a brown bag lunch for his staff, I had to reluctantly admit to myself that he was showing his age. His mind was sharp, and we had one of our usual discussions about the media’s struggle to write well about old people while simultaneously chasing advertiser dollars for younger ones they needed to feature in their news columns or on the air. After all, he did coin the word “ageism,” the prejudice against the elderly which shows up all too often in the media.

As journalist Paul Kleyman pointed out today in his Generations Beat Online post, Butler was always eager to help reporters—and not just with a quote. “If you had time and seemed interested in writing more about issues in aging, he wanted to know about you and your work,” Kleyman wrote. Over the years, Kleyman introduced many journalists to Butler, who educated them on the need to write passionately, accurately, and forthrightly about aging, even if their editors didn’t want to go there. He designed a training program for journalists: the annual Age Boom Academy, which propelled journalists far along on the learning curve. It was rigorous, and even veteran journalists went and learned a lot.

I first met Bob when I was on my way to Japan as a Fulbrighter and needed help setting up my program in a country where I knew no one. One of my goals was to report on the Japanese models of long-term care, and I didn’t know beans about the subject. My ambitions needed some grounding in reality. So I went up to Butler’s International Longevity Center, which he founded, and asked for help. Bob and his assistant, Mal Schechter, eagerly introduced me to the ILC’s counterpart in Tokyo, and from there I was in good hands learning the ins and outs of the Japanese system of health care and long-term care. Thanks to Bob, there are ILCs all over the world carrying out his vision of productive aging.

His passing is poignant, coming in the midst of yet another ideological debate over Social Security and which generation has the greater claim on the country’s resources—the young or the old. Media stories are once again creating an either/or issue. From Bob, I learned that aging is a neither an issue for the young nor for the old. It’s a family issue—the small immediate family, and the larger family of all Americans, and even the world family in far-off countries. I took him seriously and dragged my daughter to my interviews with old people and to nursing homes to observe whether the care was good or bad. She needed to know that the elderly are neither to be shunned nor feared.

This morning, my daughter sent me the statement from Mayor Bloomberg’s office and asked if I knew about Bob’s death at age eighty-three. The mayor talked about Bob’s contributions to New York City’s Age Friendly Initiative. “His passing is deeply mourned but he leaves a lasting legacy,” Bloomberg said. He also left a lasting impression on my daughter. “I was saddened to hear the news,” she said. “I remember meeting him when I was little.” I then recalled taking her to my first visit at ILC. She was eight at the time, but still remembered that meeting from long ago.

Kleyman called Bob a humanist. Indeed he was. Journalists wanting to interpret the looming, crucial issues of aging going forward will have a hard time finding teachers as good as Bob.

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Trudy Lieberman is a longtime contributing editor to the Columbia Journalism Review. She is the lead writer for The Second Opinion, CJR's healthcare desk, which is part of our United States Project on the coverage of politics and policy. She also blogs for Health News Review. Follow her on Twitter @Trudy_Lieberman.