Robert ButlerRobert N. Butler receives the Heinz Award for the Human Condition for advancing the rights and needs of the nation's aging citizenry and enhancing the quality of life for elderly Americans.
A gerontologist, Dr. Butler is the co-founder and president/chief executive officer of the International Longevity Center. Recognizing almost 50 years ago the impact that the graying of America would have on this nation, Dr. Butler's life's work has been dedicated to helping the country address the far-reaching challenges presented by an aging population. At the same time, he has been equally committed to ensuring the dignity, productivity and vitality of our senior years.
During the 1960s, as the country confronted its civil rights obligations to minorities and women, Dr. Butler recognized another form of discrimination - the discrimination against the elderly that he called "ageism." He solidified his reputation as a prophetic visionary in 1975 with the publication of Why Survive? Being Old in America. The book, which earned him a Pulitzer Prize, foresaw the impact that aging would have on American society, from economics to housing to health care.
That same year, Dr. Butler became the founding director of the National Institute on Aging (NIA) of the National Institutes of Health, where he helped raise greater awareness of issues related to aging, including the concept of "productive aging" and the then-unheard-of condition, Alzheimer's disease. He oversaw in-depth research and data collection on the aging process and fostered the development of geriatric medicine in the United States. Within the agency's first decade, the medical literature on aging doubled, helping overturn stereotypes and debunk myths about the elderly. When he left the agency six years later, NIA's budget had grown from $15 million to $70 million.
In 1982, Dr. Butler blazed another new trail. When the Mount Sinai School of Medicine asked him to recommend qualified candidates for its new geriatrics chair, he had another idea - create a separate department. He then went on to become the first chair of the new department where he opened an assessment unit for elderly patients in the medical center and required students to take courses in geriatrics. Mount Sinai agreed, opening the nation's first department of geriatrics, a program that would serve as a model for other schools of medicine, nursing and social work.
Eight years later, his influence became more global in scope. He co-founded the International Longevity Center, a non-profit organization dedicated to helping societies address longevity and population aging in positive and productive ways. The organization, which is part of a multinational research and education consortium with centers in Europe, Asia and the Caribbean, studies the effects of greater life expectancy on individuals and society as a whole.
Last year, Dr. Butler presented a paper, Declaration of the Rights of Older Persons, at the United Nations World Assembly on Aging. This declaration - addressing health care, education, employment and retirement, among other issues - ultimately served as the framework for the conference's final document, which was endorsed by delegates from more than 160 countries.
Through wisdom, foresight and passionate leadership, Dr. Butler has not only helped our nation address our obligations to an aging population, but his far-reaching contributions also have dramatically improved the quality of life for generations of Americans to come.
Note: This profile is excerpted from the commemorative brochure published at the time of the awards' presentation.
Robert Butler passed away on July 4th, 2010.
Speech12/4/2003 - Acceptance Speech
I am deeply honored to receive the Heinz Award focused upon the Human Condition. Teresa Heinz's concept of these awards is wonderful, a living tribute to honor her late husband John Heinz whom I was privileged to know and deeply admire during my tenure directing the National Institute on Aging.
With me this evening is my wife and my intellectual partner Dr. Myrna Lewis who has contributed enormously to my career.
I am pleased that this Award recognizes my major goal, the improvement in the quality of life of older Americans, enhancing their rights, meeting their needs and valuing their contributions.
The unprecedented increase in longevity and population aging was one of the singular demographic facts of the 20th century - the gain of over 30 years of additional life - greater than attained during the preceding 5000 years of human history. What was once the privilege of the few has become the destiny of the many. Many important adjustments, however imperfect and incomplete, have already been made. But there is still much to be accomplished.
We have not dealt sufficiently with the needs for long-term chronic care, health promotion and disease prevention, community-based care, and systematic geriatrics training so that no one graduates from medical school and a residency program - whatever the specialty - without proper knowledge concerning aging and the proper care of older persons. Such reforms should be accomplished from the perspective of the lifespan as a whole and not focused alone upon older persons. After all, much that constitutes old age is determined earlier in childhood and we all potentially grow old.
Fears of dependency, dementia, aging and death contribute to avoidance of the topic of aging and encourage ageism, prejudice against age.
I grew up with robust grandparents. However, my grandfather's death when I was 7 years old led me to decide to become a physician. We then lost our home in the Great Depression, but my mother and grandmother were determined that I realize my hope and go to medical school.