Caregiver Solutions — Spring 2015
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Redefining Seniors In The New Millennium
Bruce Grierson, BA, BFA

The choices you make today will be in your biography tomorrow...” That’s a pretty good motto. “The choices you make today will be in your biology tomorrow.” That’s even better.

I’d like to claim that this inspirational one two punch came from my pal Olga Kotelko, the legendary masters athlete and pride of West Vancouver, but it didn’t. It could have, however, and I thought of it often as I watched Olga, in that quietly deliberate way of hers, fashion one spectacular day after another.

Olga’s choices

When people first hear Olga’s story—how she took up track and field at age 77; how she set more than 50 world records; how she seemed to be a 55-year-old who had ended up with a 95-year-old’s birth certificate because of some mix-up—they usually have one question. It’s the same one Today Show host Natalie Morales asked when Olga was on the show in January. “What’s your secret?”

Olga had a few different answers (we’ll get to the best one in a moment). But when I’m asked to boil down what she had learned—given the five years we spent together visiting labs and talking to scientists and running tests to get a better idea of why she wasn’t aging as quickly as the rest of us—I usually fall back on one word: choices.

By choices, I really mean habits: what we do and how we think. Habits of body and habits of mind. Now, everybody is curious about those habits of body. Tell us the nitty-gritty details of Olga’s physical routine, they’ll implore. How did she train? What did she eat? How long did she sleep? How did she stay so cognitively sharp— was it puzzles, or bridge, or what?

All good questions, and part of the overall picture, for sure. But to me, those habits of body are less interesting than the habits of mind that built them, because it’s our minds, not our bodies, that set the agenda of our lives.

No, thank you

Olga didn’t doubt for one minute that she could keep high jumping and long jumping competitively well into her 90s. So what if almost no other woman on earth her age was doing those things? What had been done didn’t interest her. She believed that limits were illusory, that anything could be done eventually. All you need is the time for persistence—that simple, amazing little tool—to work its magic.

So here’s a question that I came to be a little bit obsessed with early on: What if Olga didn’t becoming a wizened old lady at the expected rate because she simply said, “No, thank you”?

The power of the mind to influence how we age is vastly under appreciated. How we manage stress, how we avoid isolation and loneliness, how we think about aging itself: These things matter a ton, as new research continues to reveal. But the biggest factor of all may be attitude.

Celebrate—or learn

Here is Olga’s philosophy of life in a nutshell: When something good happens, it’s a cause for celebration. When something bad happens, it’s a learning experience or a funny story at dinner, and there’s every chance it will prove to be a blessing in disguise. Let’s call that a positive outlook. A positive outlook buys you better health and a longer life. Part of that outlook is the temperament we’re born with. But attitude is also built, as I would come to learn not long after Olga and I met back in 2009. As it happened, we were heading in completely different directions. I was bottoming out. My bad eating and sleeping habits had caught up with me. I had been a lifelong runner, but now I couldn’t even jog. One day—the lowest point of all—I got winded opening a can of tomato sauce. I seemed to be aging in double-time. All I could think of was how many doors were closing and how many options were shutting down. And then, suddenly, here was this woman who could be my grandmother, who had twice my energy. More importantly, she had a totally different perspective—on aging, on life, on pretty much everything.

What Olga effectively said to me was: ‘Hey, you. Look up from your shoelaces. You’re not even 50, for Pete’s sake. You have young kids, a great wife. You’re blessed. Look. My garden is going crazy. Come pick some apples. Enjoy. Lighten up!’

I call ‘Lighten Up’ rule number six in my catalogue of Olga’s Nine Rules for Living.

Strangely, it’s the one I get challenged on most often. People call it the ‘Don’t Worry, Be Happy’ rule, and they’re very dubious. It’s easy to look on the bright side, they say, when you have no aches or pains, or health issues at all; when you’re not lonely or depressed or burdened by money woes. Optimism, they say, is the luxury of people who have led charmed lives. To those folks I say, You don’t really know Olga’s story, do you? Her life has been anything but charmed.

All about Olga

She grew up on a farm on the prairies during the Depression. Her early adult years were full of struggle. She fled a terrifying marriage—her husband almost killed her with a knife to the throat. She fled in the dead of night with one young daughter and pregnant with the second. She earned a B.Ed. degree in the evenings while working days in a creosote factory and raising the girls as a single mom. She watched her daughter Nadine die of cancer. Optimism isn’t some default position she slid into because life was so great. It really was a choice. Laughing—instead of crying, instead of whining, instead of quitting—is a choice.

I still hear people say the mystery of Olga is no mystery at all: She chose her parents well; she was born with genes the rest of us can only envy. To which I say: No way. Yes, she was gifted athletically. Her hand-eye coordination was off the charts. She might even have made the Olympics if she’d found her way to track and field 65 years earlier.

But as far as her health, I don’t buy it. And, frankly, it kind of ticks me off when people call her a freak of nature, because it robs her of the credit she deserves. Olga’s secret isn’t the genome she rode in on: It’s the wise decisions she made; it’s the lens she chose to look through at life. And, of course, it’s her character traits as well: dedication and persistence and consistency and guts and follow-through and saying “yes” a whole lot but sometimes saying “no.”

There’s a great Irish expression: You’ve got to do your own growing, no matter how tall your grandfather was.

Quality of life

As many of you know, Olga died suddenly in June last year. She got up in the night to use the bathroom, and a blood vessel in her skull burst. The official cause of death was determined to be a cranial hemorrhage. Doctors say she likely went unconscious within a few seconds. There were fingernail marks on the toilet paper roll— she’d tried to grab at something solid as she went down. Her daughter found her the next morning, but by then the damage was done. It’s the swelling that kills the brain cells.

I’ve spent a lot of time since then thinking about what it means that she died. People were stunned. They said, only half-jokingly, “I thought she was going to live forever!” The tightrope walker Jay Cochrane used to tell people, “My job is to stay on the wire—that’s how I inspire.” A lot of people viewed Olga that way. She had her own magical wire walk going. She too was an inspiration … as long as she stayed on the wire. And then she fell.

Two weeks before she died, Olga taped a segment for The Dr. Oz Show called “How to Live to 100.” It aired a few days after she died. A friend said to me, “I guess it was too late to pull her spot.”

Too late to pull her spot—as if her death had spoiled the fairy tale, and sort of undermined the example of her life. I don’t see it that way. On the contrary, I think Olga’s dying when she did, the way she did, changes the conversation around her. Her story is no longer just about longevity, but quality of life. In a lot of ways, crazy as it sounds, Olga was just peaking.

She’d smashed the world record in eight events in Budapest. She came home to be love-bombed by her friends and congratulated on finishing her memoir. Then, for good measure, she bagged seven more world records. Then she tackled the garden. If you think of life as a poker game—where the currency you’re playing for isn’t money, but health and energy and purpose—then by those terms, over her 90 years Olga had amassed one of the biggest piles of chips anybody ever has. And then she walked away from the table.

Take every day as a miracle

Now it could be that she would have kept on winning in this poker game for months or years or even a decade or more. But the odds are against it. Beyond a certain point, there are trade-offs for everybody when it comes to length of life vs. quality of life. For Olga, was that tipping point a year away, or a day away? Who knows? She didn’t spend much time crunching the probabilities. She thought of her life as a miracle. It was beyond her wildest imagining.

Gerontologists have a term: “squaring the curve.” It means that if you think of your physical and mental health as a line on a graph over the course of your lifetime, you want that line not to be a long, slow, downward slope. You want it to be horizontal for as long as possible, and then to plunge vertically at the end, when some sudden illness or a falling brick—or a cranial hemorrhage—takes you out quickly. I think this is what we all aspire to: to live right up to that tipping-point moment, whether it comes at age 75 or 85 or 95. I think that’s a better goal than simply staying above ground as long as humanly possible. Olga believed we are all born with sealed orders. So open the envelope. Don’t wait till you’re 77—do it now. That’s what she would say if she were standing before you today.

Mazel tov, Olga. I raise a pretend glass of scotch to you. And to all those choices that can be our choices, too. L

Bruce Grierson, author of What Makes Olga Run? (Random House Canada and Henry Holt) gave the keynote address at the Canadian Home Care Association conference in February in Banff. This essay is adapted from that speech.
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