Lately I’ve been wading into streams of mail from readers approaching death. Some are fighting it, some are afraid, some are ready to go.
And then I heard from two readers with an update on Hedda Bolgar. I wrote about the Brentwood therapist three Septembers ago, when she was 99 and still seeing clients. Bolgar, now 102 and still on the job, was just honored in Washington, D.C., where she received one of two Outstanding Oldest Worker Awards given this year by the organization Experience Works. She shared the spotlight with a 101-year-old man who’s a custodian at a Maryland post office.
When I called Bolgar’s home number, she picked up right away, sounding fresh as a daisy even though she’d just gotten home from D.C. Her calendar was a bit busy, with clients coming in four days a week. And Bolgar is preparing a spring course she’ll teach on the trauma of forced migration, an issue she believes the psychoanalytic community has failed to adequately address.
But she managed to fit me into a small hole in her calendar.
Bolgar, who fled Europe when Hitler entered Austria, was dressed smartly and looked beautiful, and not a day older than she did on my visit in 2008. Back then, she told me matter-of-factly, “I’ve lived through revolutions, famine, war. Things like that.” She also said she was “put on this earth to accomplish certain things” and “I’m so far behind, I can never die.”
Not much has changed.
Though she says she’s slowed down a bit, Bolgar is still involved with the Wright Institute, a mental health training and service center she founded in the 1970s, and with the Los Angeles Institute and Society for Psychoanalytic Studies, which she co-founded. She also still maintains ties with a psychotherapy clinic bearing her name, which was established for clients who can’t afford treatment elsewhere. And Bolgar will be featured in an upcoming documentary on aging by filmmakers Laurie Schur and Lisa Thompson (for a sneak peek, go to https://www.beautyofaging.com).
Bolgar also spent a lot of time with researchers who quote her extensively in two new books: “The Second Century of Psychoanalysis: Evolving Perspectives on Therapeutic Action,” by Michael J. Diamond and Christopher Christian; and “Uprooted Minds: Surviving the Traumas of Terror in the Americas” by Nancy Caro Hollander.
And at 100, Bolgar became computer savvy, exploring vast Internet catalogs on psychoanalytic research. She uses the email address Hedda101 because Hedda100 was taken.
“That woman is amazing,” said Lita Levine Kleger of Experience Works, the nonprofit senior advocacy group that honored Bolgar. “She speaks extemporaneously and eloquently.” And when Bolgar arrived in Washington, said Kleger, she made it clear she had work to do: keeping her obligation to clients back home by conducting therapy sessions over the phone.
In her speech in D.C., Bolgar talked about how there’s dignity and purpose in work, and grace in aging. But she recognizes that not everyone is as lucky as she’s been.
“I always introduce my lectures by saying that old age is really a wonderful experience as long as the body ages well and you don’t have serious economic problems,” she told me. As I have seen lately in writing about the diminished lives of suffering older folks — including my father — not everyone is so lucky.
The older she gets, Bolgar said, the more she appreciates her parents. Her mother was the first female journalist and war correspondent for a Swiss newspaper, and her father was a historian, labor leader and resistance fighter.
“What I grew up with was, if there’s an unmet need in the world, you try to meet it, and if there’s a problem, you try to solve it.”
Bolgar’s home today is a meeting place for colleagues and friends who embrace that ethos. She’s not shy about her conviction that Native American poverty is an enduring American tragedy, and she has no kind words for the “lemmings at the edge of the cliff” who are cheering calls to shred Social Security and Medicare and shrink support for public education. Bolgar said it puts her in mind of the marauding gangs in Doris Lessing’s “Memoirs of a Survivor,” a dark fictional take on the breakdown of civilization.
That healthy cynicism and unflagging energy make Bolgar the envy of at least one longtime client. He’s a man in his mid-80s who tells Bolgar he’s chronically miserable and in failing health.
“He wakes up in the morning and all he wants to do is die or go back to sleep,” said Bolgar, who has suggested that he do something useful, like reading to the blind or helping out at a school.
To him, said Bolgar, “I am a magical person. He wants the magic. I tell him there is no magic and he cannot accept it. He can not accept that he’s old.”
Bolgar said she’s not afraid of death, “not that I want to accelerate it.” She hopes it’s not too “undignified or painful.” And she wants to believe death isn’t absolute finality, noting a mystical theosophy concept that the energy of each human — a permanent atom — endures.
If her life becomes about coping with pain, and she is “no longer using my body as an agent for social action,” maybe then she’ll be ready, Bolgar said. But not now.
Having twice shared the privilege of her company, I’m not sure I buy Bolgar’s claim that there is no magic. Call it what you will, but she has something besides the luck of good genes. Her fountain of youth is a rare potion of curiosity, compassion and social responsibility.
Three years ago, Bolgar talked about all that she still hopes to accomplish. This time, she put it like this:
“I’m too busy to die.”