I wonder what Dr Robert Butler, Pulitzer Prize winner (non-fiction, 1976) and foremost physician and geriatrician, would say, if he were alive today, about how older people are being treated in this global pandemic.

Across the world, an implicit ageist attitude towards older people is prevailing when they are categorised as ‘vulnerable just by being aged 60 or 70’.  Having coined the term in 1969, Dr Butler defined “ageism” as a combination of three connected elements. Among them were prejudicial attitudes towards older people, old age, and the aging process; discriminatory practices against older people; and institutional practices and policies that perpetuate stereotypes about elderly people.[1]

Dr Robert N. Butler had a very illustrious career as a physician and an advocate of the rights of older people.  He spent most of his entire working career advocating for and being the ‘best’ representative of the voices of older people.  He was also instrumental in setting up several organisations, including the International Longevity Centre USA and then went on to set up the International Longevity Centre Global Alliance (ILC Global Alliance, ILC GA), with his close friends and colleagues from other countries, Baroness Sally Greengross (ILC UK), Mr Shigeo Morioka (ILC Japan) and Dr Francois Forette (ILC France).  Their common and shared vision of an inclusive society that allows older people to thrive and enjoy longevity resulted to the setting up of the ILC Global Alliance exactly 30 years ago.

The mission of the ILC Global Alliance is to help societies to address longevity and population ageing in positive and productive ways, typically using a life course approach, highlighting older people’s productivity and contributions to family and society as a whole. The ILC GA members carry out the mission through developing ideas, undertaking research and creating fora for debate and action, in which older people are key stakeholders.[2]

Unbeknownst to many, Dr Butler was also instrumental in how the Tsao Foundation’s current Chairperson, Dr Mary Ann Tsao, set up the family’s foundation in Singapore back in 1992. He took on the role of mentor to Mary Ann as she promised her grandmother, Mdm Tsao Ng Yu Shun, that the Tsao Foundation would focus on ageing and supporting older people to age successfully in the community, surrounded by their family and friends, continuing to decide how they want to live their life as they grow older and the care they need once they become frail.

I never had the chance to meet Dr Butler in person, although I have read his book, Why Survive: Getting Old in America, when I first joined the foundation in 2002.  It was given to me as a ‘must read’, as part of my orientation to the foundation as well as to the ageing sector.  His writings, presentations and wisdom are even more poignantly relevant during this pandemic year, when being old seems to be a losing and depressing situation as we continue to isolate our elders away from their families, friends and carers as a society, because we want them to live longer.  An ironic circumstance in which to find ourselves and a situation that Dr Butler would have objected to, for he may have argued that what is needed during this pandemic is a comprehensive reform and the development of a strategy for dealing with the pandemic and an ageing population.[3]

As ILC Global Alliance celebrates its 30 year anniversary this year, I do look forward to working with colleagues from the 16 ILCs and contributing in my own way, from the International Longevity Centre Singapore (ILC-S), in creating and piloting solutions that will carry on Dr Butler’s vision of a society free from ageism and a thriving older population.  Hopefully, together, we will we be able to answer the question, not only the why survive, but more importantly, how to survive and grow old in a pandemic world?

Prepared by:

Susanna Harding, Senior Director, International Longevity Centre Singapore (ILC-S), Tsao Foundation