Tag Archives: Next Avenue

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.

Rejuvenated. Refreshed. And Resolute: I’m Not Retired

‘I hate the word retired,” says my friend Sandy (a pseudonym) as we settle in at our favorite coffeehouse on East Lake Street in Minneapolis to discuss our lives since leaving full-time employment.

She is 69, volunteering and still working part time after a departmental restructuring a few years ago eliminated a job she loved and nurtured. In early September, I left a well-compensated position two months after turning 65. I wasn’t pushed out. In fact, they were sorry to see me go.

Like Sandy, I transitioned immediately into part-time work, with two job contracts that total about 26 hours per week. Nothing close to my former full-on pace, but certainly not retired. And yet that is what many people — former business associates, one of my sisters, even a few close friends — insist on calling this period of my life.

“Congratulations on your retirement,” reads a card from a well-meaning former colleague, who softens the blow with a handwritten note: I know you will never officially be retired with all of your passions & energy.

Still. The R word bothers me enough (I literally cringe when people say it) that I reluctantly opt to poke at the bruise, look under the rock, examine the visceral impact that being called “retired” has on me. My friend Sandy nails it: It feels like an accusation, she declares, “like I sit in a recliner all day.”

Words matter, especially to a writer. And so, I believe I am being neither defensive nor in denial when I correct people — repeatedly — who say I am retiring.

True, I left my full-time job of eight-plus years on September 7. Yes, I acknowledge that I likely will never have a career, as I once defined it, again: a title, a stack of business cards, an office that overlooks historic Summit Avenue in St. Paul, name recognition among the constituents I served. I closed the door on all that, feeling like Mary Richards when she gave one last, wistful glance to the WJM newsroom on March 12, 1977.

Mary Richards, a feminist role model to girls of my generation, says goodbye to the WJM newsroom.

And yet: Here are three reasons why I refuse to use the R word for the next, and likely last, phase of my working journey.

  1. Social Security: The government declares my “full retirement age ” as 66 years and 6 months, when my benefits will be higher. Several of my peers are waiting to claim Social Security until they’re 70, which many financial advisors encourage. All I can promise is that I’m not going to claim benefits for a while.
  2. Continued employment: I have two income streams from part-time jobs, as managing editor of Streets.mn, a transportation and environmental community blog, and as executive director of a re-emerging nonprofit dedicated to urban parks and trails.
  3. I like working: Absent pressure from my retired husband, I would have stayed at my university job for another academic year. But two part-time jobs landed in my lap last spring, and that softened the hard decision to quit full-time work before I felt ready, either emotionally or intellectually.

If I’ve learned anything in recent years from the movement to declare pronouns when introducing yourself (“she/her”), it is that individuals have a right to describe themselves in words that feel affirming and true. The people who know me well will tell you, I am not retiring, in any sense of that word. My younger son’s partner suggested that I am “downsizing” my career. I can live with that.

Never depend on a single income. Make an investment to create a second source.

Investment guru Warren Buffett

Last Friday was the first time in four decades that a biweekly paycheck didn’t drop into my checking account, a tidy sum of money that helped me feel sheltered and secure, like a double bolt on the front door when I’m home alone. I now have three paychecks instead of one — the two part-time jobs and a pension from the Newspaper Guild, which I laughed off as “grocery money” when I was working full time. Soon, I know, it will come to feel essential.

These first few weeks of “gig work,” as my Millennial son calls it, were cushioned by a final, fat paycheck from my former employer that included an extra 40 hours of vacation pay. The reality of living on a smaller, less predictable income has yet to hit home, though I passed on ordering a $4 cup of coffee when I went out for Sunday breakfast (I’d just made coffee at home) and have given up membership in my pricey yoga studio because Medicare will pay for the unfortunately named Silver Sneakers classes at other gyms nearby.

Up to 40 percent of retired Americans live mainly on Social Security. I recognize the privilege in my easy choices and see the middle-class safety net strung securely beneath me. I was taught to save money, advised to take advantage of employer retirement plans, which I did starting at age 27, educated to understand the risks and rewards of buying stocks.

I talk with friends who are farther down the road on this journey, loping toward what we all hope will be a fulfilling and financially solvent old age:

  • “When I don’t work, I don’t get paid,” says Diane, who rebounded from a company downsizing with a consulting contract that calls on her accrued wisdom and expertise. Lately, however, elder-care duties have pulled her out of state.
  • “You have to get used to taking money out rather than putting money in,” says Mary, a former colleague who retired at 60 and is living on her husband’s Social Security draw and full-time paycheck — and doing significant volunteer work at her church.
  • “I had to learn to look at income from a monthly point of view,” says another friend whose post-career consulting allowed him to hold off drawing Social Security until he turned 70, the age at which benefits max out. “Give yourself time to adjust.”

Patience is not my strong suit. Moments of panic wash over me as my Health Savings Account dwindles, as the Dow Jones Industrial Average freefalls with Putin’s torturous and ego-driven war, as my sleep grows increasingly fitful. What have I given away?

When we no longer know what to do, we have come to our real work, and when we no longer know which way to go, we have begun our real journey.

Poet and environmental activist Wendell Berry

One thing I miss already about full-time employment is having an office, a place to go to every morning, a space where I knew my purpose and who I am. Or who I was. I changed my profile on LinkedIn a few days after leaving the career position and realized I would be lost without a title. That’s what the two part-time jobs afford me, in addition to the ability to delay Social Security for at least a year.

A 22-item “Checklist for Retirement” — the type of document I’ve been filing away for the past few years — asks predictable questions about how I’ll spend my time once I quit work altogether, whether I have an emergency fund and a strong network of friends, whether I am comfortable with the level of risk in my investments.

The final question, framed as a statement, is the one that stumps me: “I am ready for this next chapter of my life.” Despite months of planning and preparation, I think I’m not. I watch the retirements, or semi-retirements, that I admire: people who stay physically active and civically engaged, who volunteer in both minor and meaningful ways, who consciously keep up their relationships, who hold jobs more for satisfaction than identity.

None of that fits the Barcalounger stereotype of retirement, the all-or-nothing notion that you’re either working, or you’re not. An article in the AARP Bulletin last June, “Why You Should Keep Working After Retirement,” argues for the very life that I am trying to construct and craft. Among its eight reasons, “a sense of purpose” and “a cushion for your savings” appeal to me most.

But there’s a ninth reason, which AARP does not address: I want work that allows me more space in my life — for my husband and sons, for the friends I have neglected, for the causes I yearn to support and for myself.

Financial journalist Chris Farrell coined the term “unretirement” in a book of the same name published in 2016. In one of those coincidences that seems meant to be, I stumbled upon a “Retire with Purpose” podcast episode the other day featuring another financial journalist discussing the same “unretirement” concept.

“I’m still in the game,” explained Richard Eisenberg, 66, who recently left a full-time job as managing editor at Next Avenue to teach, write and podcast. “I’m just not doing it all day, every day.” Instead, Eisenberg has time to “volunteer, mentor, travel, see my kids.”

Sam Studer (left) and Nate Studer and their proud parents on Thanksgiving 2021

One week before my last day at the office, I texted my two sons about establishing a tradition of monthly homecooked family meals. “Your dad and I acknowledge your busy lives and would like to be more intentional about finding time with you,” I said. To my delight, they responded immediately and affirmatively.

My breadwinning career took me away from my family. A lot. I can’t change that, but I can make different decisions now. Unretirement — working less, living more, cherishing time as well as money — grants me that freedom and opportunity. That second chance.