Ottawa's Festival of Ideas Since 1997

What Makes Olga Run?

What is it about a small, spry, spunky nonagenarian that captures our attention and leads us to examine our habits and lifestyle choices?  For starters, there aren’t many of us that will make it over 90 so encountering a healthy, happy one inevitably invokes a bit of curiosity.  But even the healthy, happy ones we would presume to be confined to a senior’s home, most likely losing lucidity and agility at a rapid rate.  The last place we’d expect to find a ninety year-old would be the medal ceremony of a 100-metre dash at a Masters Track competition.  But ninety-five year-old Olga Kotelko isn’t interested in meeting our or any expectations.  She defies the rules of aging, and her story as told by writer and author Bruce Grierson, naturally compels us to question what it is that makes her live so long (and so well) and how we might get in on that good fortune.  It amazes and baffles us that as the rest of humanity slowly succumbs to the irrepressible powers of gravity and time, Olga marches on indomitably and zestfully through her tenth decade of life.


Her story alone is compelling enough to make us drop our frozen dinners and take note.  But Grierson’s lighthearted delivery and endearing self-deprecation invite us to explore the mystery of Olga in a way that is approachable, engaging, and fun.  While there are few on this earth who can personally relate to an outlier like Olga, we can all relate to someone who wants to be more like her.  Grierson begins his exploration with questions any of us might have: “What makes Olga different?”, “Can I be like Olga?”  His five-year journey of observing, learning, and writing about what we could easily try to classify as a “freak of nature” reveals the confounding complexities of the science, the theories, and the mystery behind aging. 


Like any good exploration of life’s perplexing realities, Grierson’s talk at the Writers’ Festival left the audience with deeper and more nuanced questions than easy and straightforward answers.  Olga’s “secret to success” (the number one thing people hope to learn in reading Grierson’s book or speaking to him in person) is both mundanely simple and bewilderingly complex, all at once. 


As Grierson says, it’s a complicated combination of “genes, lifestyle, temperament, and luck.” 


Ask Olga what her secret is, or better yet, watch her in action and you won’t find her following a fad diet or applying some special skin cream.  It’s as basic as this: she lives in balanced moderation, determined positivity, and constant movement.  In a society where being deskbound for hours on end is the norm and grabbing pre-made meals is the rule rather than the exception, this timeless recipe for healthy living is now once again, as rediscoveries often are, novel.  In the amnesia of modern life, the lifestyle our bodies and minds were made for has somehow become a “secret elixir” to living long and well. 


Obviously, it goes farther and deeper than that.  Grierson is quick to point out how many different variables are involved, some of which are controllable (diet, attitude, physical movement that goes beyond 30 minutes of vigorous “exercise”); others that are harder if not impossible to control (genes, environment, upbringing.) The way nature melds this all together in a person, and peppers it with (or without) a good dose of luck, will likely remain a mystery to us mortals.  Our desperate need to quantify the unquantifiable makes this conclusion maddeningly unsatisfactory.  But it also makes Olga’s story and Grierson’s interpretation of it one of the most gripping life narratives of our day.  She may not have found the Elixir of Life but she’s discovered many ways to help her live well and after hearing from Grierson, I’m willing to give it a try.  Though I don’t know if I’d bet my life on it.