Dr. Robert N. Butler, who coined the word "ageism" and has been called the father of modern gerontology, died of leukemia on Independence Day at the age of 83. As with pioneers in other fields, it is hard to think of aging and longevity in America today without being influenced by Dr. Butler's work and thoughts. He won a Pulitzer Prize in 1976 for Why Survive? Being Old in America. He and his late wife, Dr. Myrna I. Lewis, that same year published a best-selling sex guide for older persons. As his views and research entered the mainstream, they became part of the bedrock of the orientation of powerful groups such as AARP and within academic and government circles. Dr. Butler was the first director of the National Institute on Aging and began his career 55 years ago as a government researcher.
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In many respects, older Americans have never had it so good, and Dr. Butler is owed thanks for that. The enactment of Medicare in 1965, coupled with sustained improvements in Social Security, have combined to sharply reduce poverty among those aged 65 and older. AARP and other groups are effective advocates for older Americans.
While the recession and huge budget deficits may have weakened support for Social Security, there is hardly a waiting list of politicians eager to test whether it is still the electrified third rail of national politics. And, of course, lifestyle and healthcare improvements have triggered a truly remarkable longevity revolution. People aged 85 and older are the nation's fastest-growing population group. Aging Baby Boomers are expected to be forceful advocates for age-friendly policies as they move into retirement.
Still, looking at the financial, demographic, and health challenges facing older Americans, it is not an exaggeration to say that we could use a whole bunch of Robert Butlers in the years to come.
Health reform will add millions of currently uninsured Americans to the insurance rolls. And Medicare will be getting millions of new members each year as the Boomers begin turning 65 next year. There already is a serious shortage of primary care doctors. The shortage will become a crisis in geriatrics, which already is the least profitable and popular medical specialty. Access to insurance, whether private or via Medicare, does not guarantee access to a doctor or to health care. Find and chain yourself to a good doctor now.
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Allianz Life Insurance recently released a retirement survey of Americans aged 44 to 75. By a wide margin, and in all age groups, people said they feared outliving their money more than death itself. So much for retirement security. There is nothing on the economic horizon likely to make things materially better for a long, long time. Unless we become a nation of super savers, it is hard to see nest eggs becoming sufficient to provide suitable 30-year retirements.
Lastly, while it's great to be living longer, what's so great about an extended life if the quality of that life is poor? Many older Americans are taking better care of themselves than ever before. But even larger numbers are not -- obesity and diabetes, heart disease, and other chronic illnesses are enormous problems. Fascinating medical breakthroughs in Alzheimer's seem to always remain tantalizingly around the next corner. The numbers of people who will suffer from this devastating illness inevitably will grow to crisis levels. How will we take care of them? Of us?
Dr. Butler well understood that pessimism may raise public awareness but believed in more positive approaches to addressing the challenges of an aging society. His 2008 book -- The Longevity Revolution: The Benefits and Challenges of Living -- paints an optimistic view of the future while noting that much remains to be done. Dr. Butler won't be here to help lead the charge but his ideas and example will.
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