The man who transformed aging and death, at peace

Robert Butler was aging America's Civil Rights champion, who brought our final years out of the closet and transformed them, from a horror show to the glorious epiphany they were meant to be.
Written by Dana Blankenhorn, Inactive

You probably never heard of Robert Neil Butler, who died Sunday at 83, but if your family is like mine he transformed it.

(Picture from Amazon.com.)

When my wife's grandparents neared their end, in the 1970s, aging was a fearful and horrible thing. They spent years in nursing homes, hoping for family visits, alone among their own kind, slowly losing control of their bowels, minds and memories.

When her father came near his end, a few years ago, things were very different. He went in-and-out of hospital, but usually he was at home. When the fact of death became obvious and acceptable to him, his decisions got respect.

I need to get home, he said.

He did. He was given hospice care and passed away at home, on the day after his 66th wedding anniversary, surrounded by friends and family. At peace.

The difference was Robert Butler.

His 1975 book, titled simply Why Survive: Being Old in America, began a revolution that continues today. He is the father of modern aging.

In retrospect, Butler's book was as important as Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique. Butler was a one-man Stonewall Riot, aging America's Civil Rights champion, a man who brought our final years out of the closet and transformed them, from a horror show to the glorious epiphany they were meant to be.

You may not be black, or female, or gay, but if you're lucky, if you hang around long enough, you will benefit from Robert Butler's revolution. Your future will be transformed by it.

Butler coined the term "ageism," he wrote a sex manual for seniors, he was the first head of the National Institute on Aging. He taught that old age can be a time for growth and pleasure, just like every other stage of life.

When Alan Jay Lerner and Burton Lane wrote Wait Till We're 65, as part of their 1965 show On a Clear Day You Can See Forever, it was intended as a goof, a joke. The very idea of looking forward to growing older seemed patently ridiciulous.

Robert Butler helped take away our fear. He pulled aging into the light of day. He brought hope to it.

And so my father-in-law didn't waste his last years in a home. He traveled with his wife and son, he built himself a cottage on the land where he'd grown up. He planted trees at age 85.

And he was allowed to do great things, both for retired teachers and his large, loving family. He became a great example I could aspire to, even though we had little in common, because Robert Butler's revolution made it acceptable.

Oh, and when he did pass away, age 88, he didn't have a funeral, either. He had a celebration. The church was packed, mostly with contemporaries, and while there were tears there were also smiles.

Robert Butler helped make all that possible. And when it's my time, when it's your time, it will be possible for us as well.

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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