Author Archives: Amy Gage

About Amy Gage

A community relations director in higher education and mother of two adult sons, Amy Gage spent the first 20 years of her career as a journalist and public speaker in St. Paul and Minneapolis, Minnesota. The issues addressed in her award-winning newspaper column, "On Balance: Issues That Affect Work and Home," remain relevant today. In "The Middle Stages," she continues the vital conversation about women's work and lives, with a focus on the challenges and contradictions of aging, the mixed blessings of forsaking family time for the more immediate rewards of a career, and how middle-aged women can continue to forge full lives even as their priorities and sensibilities change.

It Can Take Years to Recognize Your True Colors

Anyone with grown children surely can recall elementary school field trips to an apple orchard, a local park or a science museum where their kids were assigned to wear matching T-shirts. Decades back, I took it to be a simple, visual way to keep the kids together and prevent the wanderers and rowdies, like my older son, from getting lost, which soothed my maternal anxieties.

But now that I’ve had opportunities to wear my own matching-color uniforms in both professional and volunteer roles, it occurs to me that the T-shirts also provided children with identity and pride, a reassuring sense of place. Like a sports team or a squad of soldiers, the kids felt special. Like they belonged.

My own, more recent experiences with uniforms and matching T-shirts tell a similar story of belonging — and of recognizing our true colors as we age.

Dressing alike at work “builds rapport and makes us feel safe. If there is a sense of conformity, then we feel able to identify ourselves in others, which can bring a level of certainty.”

Dr. Sarah Jane Khalid,

Years ago, when I was head of marketing and communications at St. Catherine University, our president had a penchant for morphing the annual launch of the academic year from a standard motivational speech into a stage show, complete with musicians and dancers. I tap danced twice, alongside other game faculty and staff members who saw the assignment as a novel break from our workaday routine.

The president had a canny ability to showcase her subordinates’ creativity while nurturing their loyalty and sense of place. That was most evident the year she ordered hundreds of matching T-shirts, swore department heads to secrecy and then closed campus after her opening-day address so everyone could hop on chartered buses and enjoy a late August day at the Minnesota State Fair.

I still remember the giddy thrill of strolling through the fairgrounds and acknowledging other purple-clad Katies with a wink and a wave. Whether friends or strangers, we felt this unmatched sense of belonging, all because of matching shirts.

Though examples abound about how the potent mix of power and uniforms can be brutally misused, in this case the common colors served the common good. Matching purple T-shirts helped us show the world that we were part of, and proud of, our campus and its women’s college culture.

“It is always an honor to put on a uniform.”

San Diego Padres third baseman Manny Machado

A less happy experience with uniforms occurred recently at the headquarters of Planned Parenthood North Central States when I arrived for my monthly shift to make donor thank you calls. The usual array of protestors was on the public sidewalk as I passed by: kneeling to pray and count rosary beads, pacing and chanting with gruesome signs, yelling at patients as they left their vehicles and before they’d made it safely to the main door.

As a volunteer, you try to tune out the racket. As an older woman, I have learned that temper rarely serves me. But the fall of Roe v. Wade, the misogynistic bills in state legislatures around the country, the sanctimony of Trump’s conservative court that, I believe, will harm democracy even more than the insurrection — all of my simmering resentment boiled over into rage that day when I saw a protestor wearing a hot pink vest, in the exact style and color of Planned Parenthood’s volunteer security team.

I strode past her, toward the building, and then pivoted and marched back. I’d never shouted at a protester, something we are ordered not to do. “Hot pink is our color,” I said, standing inches from her face. “That is the most cynical thing you can do, to impersonate a volunteer and make women think you’re here to help them. You have no idea what people are here for.”

I ignore the woman now when I arrive for my volunteer shifts as an escort or a phone banker, and breathe a sigh of relief when I see someone in the driveway wearing the pink security vest branded with white lettering: smiling, waving, welcoming me inside the gates. Hot pink is our refuge, our code and color — our symbol of collective resistance to a society that increasingly restricts voting, that fears other freedoms and that will not stop with a rollback of abortion rights.

“One thing I’ve learned as I’ve gotten into serious old age, it’s not nearly as scary when you’re inside it.”

Jane Fonda, “Wiser Than Me” podcast with Julia Louis-Dreyfus

I am 20 years younger than Jane Fonda, one of my icons; and yes, in my darker moments, I do fear growing older, dreading mobility loss the most. Aging is intimidating, and if any person 65 or older tells you differently, take time to ask a few follow-up questions.

Among the health risks for older people, cherry picked from a list of 15: dementia, incontinence, heart disease, hypertension, arthritis, depression, hearing loss and cancer. No wonder the United Nations declared 2021–30 the Decade of Healthy Aging, given the exploding population of older folks worldwide.

One can deny aging, as I am prone to do — stubbornly insisting, for example, that the name of my blog remain “The Middle Stages” (“Do you plan to live to 130?” one sarcastic reader inquired). So, it’s no surprise that I’ve resisted participating in what I’ve derisively called the “old people” classes at Lifetime Fitness, the facility I joined for free once I qualified for Medicare.

During my first class in the Aurora “community,” Lifetime’s program for active seniors, I announced to anyone who would listen — and likely more than a few folks who didn’t care — that I’d transferred recently from CorePower, the youthful yoga chain founded in Denver. When I didn’t return to my Aurora class for weeks, the front desk at Lifetime reached out to entice me back with, yes, a colored T-shirt.

In contrast to the industrial black-and-gray shirts pedaled to younger members of the club, the Aurora shirts are a calming shade of blue. Would this relegate me, a former fitness instructor, to forever exercising among slow-moving seniors?

“Healthy, active, social,” the back of my blue shirt reads. I swallowed my pride and wore the T-shirt to an Aurora program full of bald and graying heads, a Pilates class that acknowledged realities like foot neuropathy and shrinking muscle mass. I was one of four people wearing the blue T-shirt in class that day, and like the schoolkids of decades past, that helped me feel at home.

“People eventually show their true colors,” the saying goes. Mine are now hot pink for social action and a soft sky blue for safer, gentler physical activities that encourage both self-acceptance and self-care. All of us 65 and older are journeying toward a future that none of us can see. It’s a different sort of field trip, complete with matching T-shirts.

It is the place where I belong.

‘Glidepath’: a bridge between work and retirement

Catherine Spaeth lives in an 1894-era house with a wraparound front porch, carved oak banisters, an abundance of natural light and a high-ceilinged kitchen that suits her latest adventure — a pastry and baking certificate from Saint Paul College that she hopes to parlay into a part-time job or a small catering business.

In addition to the chance to perfect her baking skills, she likes the certificate’s emphasis on classes like “Food Safety and Sanitation” and “Culinary Nutrition Theory.” Her recently resurrected blog, The Butter Chronicles, features posts about how food choices affect our brains, the rise in U.S. sugar consumption and why professional cooks never wipe their hands on their aprons.

At 63, Spaeth (below) has run study abroad programs in private higher ed, taught American history and literature, and co-owned a company that designed college cultural immersion programs. She speaks English, French and Italian and holds advanced degrees in American studies. She and her husband, an athletic outdoorsman, took a six-month pilgrimage walk through Europe in 2022.

With a life that expansive, why go back to community college now, cramming to relearn algebra for the admissions exam only to sweat alongside students young enough to be her kids? The why is simple: Because she can. “It’s been really fun,” says Spaeth, over hot tea and homemade scones.

“Going back to school is an incredible luxury,” she acknowledges, though Spaeth balks at the assumption that she “doesn’t have to work.”

“What that conjures up for women is way different than what it conjures up for men,” she explains. “It’s saying, ‘You don’t have to do anything.’ You can stay at home and everything you do at home is not work” — a stereotype and societal perception that drove me, 40 years ago, to pursue a paid career.

Both Spaeth and her husband, a retired lawyer, plan to forego drawing Social Security until they’re 70. “We’re not big spenders,” she notes, “and our mortgage is paid off.” So, her goal in returning to college is less to earn money than to find purpose after decades of full-time work. “I don’t want a life with no commitments,” Spaeth says.

What happens after 60?

Like many professionals in their 60s, including me, Spaeth is on a glidepath toward retirement. Not ready to quit work entirely but situated financially to have options, we have left full-time careers for a variety of reasons:

  • We earned and saved enough over the course of our working lives that we could afford this choice.
  • Medicare gives us reasonably priced healthcare coverage at age 65 without having to rely on employer-provided benefits.
  • We watched as our peers, deemed irrelevant or overpriced, were laid off or restructured out (yes, it happens to people over age 60, despite the legal risks).
  • We opted to do something different — volunteer, travel more widely, pursue a passion — when the careers became less relevant to us.
  • We have spouses who may be older or are retired themselves.

Glidepath is a financial planning term that references the portfolio rebalancing typically recommended as people get closer to retirement. But it applies to the path that Spaeth and I are pursuing, too: more schooling, in her case; two part-time jobs, in mine.

As a self-described workaholic, I found myself ready to slow down at 65 but not to step away from work entirely. My career has meant too much to me — in identity and intellectual stimulation, in the pride and purpose of supporting a family — to simply flip a switch and say: “I’m done.” Plus, I also want to delay drawing Social Security.

“I love the term glidepath,” says Spaeth, whose study-abroad business ground to a halt once COVID struck. “It was a rough year and a half trying to stay afloat with no revenue coming in.” She calls the pastry and baking certificate her “next project,” one that allows her to look ahead rather than wallowing in the business loss.

That sense of optimism is particularly important as women age. “Part of wanting commitment and engagement is related to an identity,” Spaeth says. “As older women, we’re already invisible in lots of ways, and I don’t want to be out of the world, out of the working world — where, for better or worse, you get your respect or recognition.”

Endings and beginnings

Six months into my own glidepath a term I prefer to “semi-retirement” — I am learning firsthand about the challenges and benefits of leaving full-time work. The upside of two part-time jobs is apparent in the schedule I have crafted: more volunteering for Planned Parenthood, where I had to operate under the radar while employed by a Catholic university; more opportunities to cook and have people over; more reading and yoga; more coffee and meal dates with my friends and sons.

Still, the expanses of time that I expected to emerge have not materialized. “Busier than I’d like to be” is my standard response when people ask how my new life is going. That’s due in part to my tendency to overbook my calendar.

‘Retired’ is an old word, for men who are leaving manual labor.

Kathy Kelso, St. Paul-based advocate on healthful aging

But it’s also because professional occupations, which my two roles are — managing editor of a Twin Cities–based community blog and executive director of a small, environmentally focused nonprofit — do not lend themselves to hourly contract work.

  • Do you charge only for the time you’re at the computer or in meetings? Or is it legitimate to bill for travel time or for processing and “think time,” as another nonprofit executive director encouraged me to do?
  • Who pays for networking and professional development, for the outreach that yields relationships more than direct, measurable impact on a given project?
  • Most challenging, how do you right-size your ego — your past practice of operating as a doer and decision-maker — so it fits into the box that contract work constructs? When the board differs with your recommendations or does not consult you on a key decision, do you fight it, or recognize that you are not in charge?

The financial definition of glidepath fails to address that emotional turbulence. I am traveling toward a different future, but I lug along my baggage from the past — the habits and ways of working, the belief that my career defined me. I rarely called in sick. I was always pushing for new solutions. I reveled in the résumé-building accomplishments that my career allowed.

None of that matters anymore, because the glidepath leads downhill, to a door labeled “retirement,” which traditionally has meant: That’s it! You’re finished.

Retirement: define your terms

Jim McCartney, 69, a former business reporter and colleague of mine at the St. Paul Pioneer Press, is wary about the term glidepath, given its implication that his career is slowing to a stop. “I’m not necessarily wanting to land,” he says, “if landing means I have to stop writing.”

After leaving journalism for a lucrative career in public relations, McCartney faced a layoff three years ago, at the start of the pandemic. He was 66 and immediately began promoting himself as a writer for hire, even though his wife brings in a full-time income.

“I love writing,” he says. “It’s kind of my identity. I can’t imagine ever stopping writing.”

Unlike me — working at two jobs I enjoy but for significantly less than my full-time compensation, once you factor in benefits — McCartney takes pride in having earned more as a freelancer during the first year after he was laid off. “I don’t necessarily place my self-worth on what I can make, but it’s nice to know that someone is willing to pay well for my services,” he explains. “As long as I like the work, it’s a validation that you’re worth X amount per hour.”

McCartney is now doing business under the moniker JSM Communications LLC, specializing in science, medical and healthcare writing. He will wait until he turns 70 to draw Social Security, subscribing to the common wisdom that “unless you’re really sick and don’t think you’re going to live very long,” it makes sense to maximize the monthly payout from the government.

Two of his close friends from the Pioneer Press are retired and involved in volunteer work at nonprofits, their reporting days behind them. But McCartney, who began his career as a city reporter at the New Ulm Journal (above), likes the word retired even less than he likes glidepath.

“I don’t want someone to think, ‘Oh, I wish Jim were still writing, but he’s retired.’ I don’t want people to think I’m out of the game,” he says, “because I’m not out of the game. I’m still writing, but I’m doing it on my own terms.”

The Big O has new meaning as women age

Since being diagnosed in November, days before Thanksgiving, I have taken a chalky white pill with a full glass of water every Thursday morning, on an empty stomach. Then I have stood or sat upright for an hour before enjoying my customary coffee with microwaved milk, so the medicine can be absorbed and won’t irritate the esophagus (my “food pipe”).

Initially, I was angry:

  • At a healthcare system that didn’t warn me years ago that bone density could be an issue for a woman who is white, thin, of northern European heritage, with a small frame and a mother who took Fosomax herself for years.
  • At a nurse practitioner who had seen me before my 65th birthday in July and never mentioned it was time for another bone density scan. I discovered that on my own while clicking through MyChart months later to verify an appointment and saw a notice that my scan was “overdue.”
  • At a culture that pressured women to be model thin when I was young. Twiggy was a skinny, 16-year-old kid when the media started marketing her as the ideal body type for women. Even Gloria Steinem, for all her intellect and accomplishments, became the face of the 1970s-era women’s movement in part because she, too, was thin and pretty.

“I have to focus more on being strong than being thin,” I wrote on Facebook shortly after my diagnosis of thinning bones. Enough crowing about keeping a closet full of clothes from my 40s and 50s “because they still fit.” Or celebrating that I weigh less than I did when I got pregnant with my older son, who was born in 1990. Or preferencing cardio exercise, which gives me an emotional lift, over the tougher, more monotonous work of lifting weights.

One of my sisters was nurturing and supportive, texting or calling to offer tips about the benefits of Pilates or which calcium-rich foods to eat. (Who knew that ice cream, eggnog and fortified frozen waffles would make the list, alongside kale and broccoli?)

My oldest sister, the pragmatic one, issued a simple challenge: What are you going to do about it?

Name it, claim it

The word itself scares me. Osteoporosis conjures up images of an old, wizened woman whose upper back has curved into a question mark. My reluctance to name the disease, to say the word aloud, is both a symbol and a symptom of my denial. Just as I resisted the label alcoholic when I recognized in my early 40s that I needed to quit drinking, I now reference my “bone density issue.”

Osteoporosis is for old people; osteoporosis, like forgetfulness and a thickening middle, is for my late mother. Thinning bones don’t afflict people who are fit and who exercise as much as I do.

Or so I thought. Physically active throughout my life — a seasoned cyclist, a walker who averages 16,000 steps a day, a former aerobics instructor who still loves to take yoga classes — I was stunned that thinning bones could be a problem. When the nurse practitioner handed me a printout from Mayo Clinic at my follow-up appointment, I noted that none of the “lifestyle choices” that increase risk of osteoporosis apply to me:

  1. Sedentary lifestyle. I have a hard time sitting still. “You’re in fifth gear or asleep,” my husband likes to say.
  2. Excessive alcohol consumption. I haven’t had a drink since January 10, 2010.
  3. Tobacco use. I never could inhale.

“This is not your fault,” the nurse practitioner assured me after I told her I was scared. But the diagnosis, especially on the cusp of snow and ice season in Minnesota, felt like a slippery slide into old age — like “being suddenly Old and Fragile,” as one friend aptly put it.

How would I walk my dogs every morning when falling could more easily break my bones? Would I have to abandon biking come spring, a sport I have loved since I was 5, because a tumble could sideline me forever? Exercise and movement are my sanity, my way of coping with stress, my increasingly tenuous hold on independence, my illusion that I will be forever young.

As the shock has worn off, I have moved gradually toward acceptance, and into action. Do something now, or you’ll pay later. That much is clear.

Bone up

Watching my weight was something I could control in a world that (still) tries to control women’s bodies. Now, I apply that discipline to self-care for my bones.

One lesson I’ve learned already is to take charge of my own healthcare. In a system still exhausted and under-resourced from COVID, no doctor is going to walk me through this. Doing my own research and seeking support from friends and family members, including my weight-lifting sons, have pulled me out of the muck of fear and self-pity.

  • Thursday is Fosomax day, with a weekly reminder on my calendar. The hour of being upright and foregoing any nourishment but water is peaceful and productive quiet time.
  • I lift free weights two to three times a week and am relishing growing stronger.
  • I have started taking a Pilates Fusion class designed for people with arthritis and osteoporosis, with special emphasis on strengthening back, glute and abdominal muscles.
  • I no longer skip my daily calcium and Vitamin D3 supplements.

That my diagnosis came on the cusp of a major life change — a step away from a full-time career, and all the status and identity and financial security that brought me — has made osteoporosis seem both an indignity and oddly well timed, a gentle push into the next phase of life and a firm reminder to accept reality and deal with it.

“Everyone hopes to reach old age, but when it comes, most of us complain about it,” the Roman philosopher Cicero said. Had I not been searching the website for tips on healthy bones, I never would have stumbled upon “Lessons on Successful Aging,” derived from Cicero’s 2,000-year-old essay “On Old Age.”

Among the lessons relative to women at this later stage of life:

  1. A good old age begins in youth. I can wish that I had started lifting weights at a younger age, but I cannot change the habits or negligence of the past. All I can do is develop new patterns now.
  2. We can be active in old age, with limitations. Winter biking will never be a sport I’ll pursue, just as jogging outdoors in winter now seems foolhardy.
  3. Youth and old age differ. Longing for what was keeps us stuck in the past and blocks us from embracing the benefits of aging.

Osteoporosis, the Big O for older women, is my necessary reminder that good health is neither a given nor guaranteed.