Obituary: Dr. Robert Butler, pioneer in aging, pushed for home monitoring technology

Psychiatrist Dr. Robert Butler, who died July 4 at the age of 83, founded the National Institute on Aging, the Alzheimer's Association and the American Association of Geriatric Psychiatry. He won a Pulitzer Prize for the 1975 book, Why Survive? Being Old in America. Butler also was a fan of the emerging field of home monitoring technology.

Eric Dishman, director of health innovation and policy for Intel's Digital Health Group, fondly remembers Butler's visit to an Intel lab a few years back. "[H]ere 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," Dishman writes on the [email protected] blog. "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."

Dishman met Butler one other time: about 18 months ago, in New York City. There, Dishman expressed his frustration with the glacial pace of change in healthcare: "This is crazy," Dishman said. "I've been trying for 11 years to get government and industry to prepare for Global 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."

Nonplussed, Butler spoke of the virtue of patience. "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," Butler told him. "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!"

And with that, Butler encouraged Dishman not to be so patient because the aging population needs innovation.

For more:
- read Dishman's appreciation on the [email protected] blog
- see this obituary of Butler in the New York Times