For New Eastside resident Gail Zelitzky, launching a podcast that celebrates the lives and accomplishments of senior women was the fulfillment of a dream.
"I started to think about this a couple of years before, just a germ of an idea," she said. "And I was able to bring it to fruition and turn it into something that is meaningful for all the women in our community."
Zelitzky, 78, first developed the concept for Women Over 70: Aging Reimagined when she turned 70, with the goal of interviewing 70 women who had also reached that milestone to gain an understanding of what was ahead.
In the summer of 2019, Zelitzky approached her friend and mentor Catherine Marienau to discuss the idea. The two women, who met when Zelitzky was completing a master's degree in applied professional studies at DePaul University, come from very different professional backgrounds. Zelitzky is a business coach who previously worked in the liquor industry, while Marienau served as a faculty member at DePaul for three decades. Both women share a passion for helping other women.
"For my entire professional career, most of the students that I've worked with, 75 to 80 percent have been women," said Marienau, 71. "So these are mature women in their 30s, 40s, 50s, sometimes older, who are pursuing their degrees. And I've taught women's issues for 30-some years. Women's issues, women's lives have always been a central interest of mine."
In preparation for the project, Zelitzky and Marienau completed an intensive four-week podcast course. Zelitzky's son's production team produced the first 10 episodes, and the pair later hired a production assistant and social media driver, Kristine Kruse, to assist them with the remaining episodes.
"We've really learned a great deal through that whole process," Marienau said.
Initially, Zelitzky and Marienau reached into their personal networks to find women to interview for the podcast, and their pool of potential guests quickly expanded as the project took off.
"We started talking, interviewing women that each of us knew, and they'd refer us to other women, and it's just become a very vibrant community," Marienau said. "I don't think we'll ever run out of women to talk with."
Rebecca Sive, a Chicago-based author who has written several books about women in politics, reached out to Zelitzky and Marienau after a friend of hers, activist Heather Booth, appeared on the podcast. Sive, 70, was the featured guest on episode 48.
"I was very impressed with them and the care and attention they give to their work," she said. "I think they do a lot of advanced preparation in terms of learning about their guests and the Q&A that they want to have, and all of that. I just think they're doing something important — that's really the main point here, to me. I think it's just critical that women of every generation have a chance to tell their stories, share their work, keep on working together on projects that matter."
Bobbi Wilsyn, 72, a North Side resident and former Columbia College professor and jazz singer, said she enjoyed speaking about her experiences on episode 68 of Women Over 70.
"It was inspiring, even prior to being a guest on the show, to find out that people were interested and getting together a group of women of a certain age—I prefer to call them 'women of a certain stage of their lives'—to talk about how they're still contributing and how aging has affected them, most often positively," she said. "I was glad to hear that there was such a gathering of like-minded individuals that were women and that they were over 70, and I was included."
Harriett Cholden, 80, a North Side resident and retired teacher who appeared on the podcast's 69th episode, said she had received a lot of positive feedback about the episode and felt Zelitzky and Marienau were "really superb interviewers."
"They had chosen good questions for me," she said. "They were things I was well able to talk to ... they were just delightful to work with. Once this pandemic is over, I'm hoping to have lunch with them."
Cholden said a community for older women was important for the same reasons people need any community — forming a group around a shared experience.
"The social community is based on, often-times, a level of education or socio-economic situation," she said. "Professional communities are based on the profession. It makes perfect sense — if you're going to have a community of 10-year-olds playing basketball or something, why not have a community of the 70 and older group?
Beyond just the podcast, Zelitzky and Marienau have worked to provide resources and opportunities for senior women to meet and connect. Their YouTube series, Advocates for Women Aging, features experts on subjects related to aging, and the two women also have a podcast discussion club and monthly Zoom gatherings for their interested guests and community members.
For the podcast's 70th interview with a woman over 70 — which will technically be its 82nd episode — Zelitzky and Marienau plan to host a watch party and find a celebrity guest over 70 to make an appearance. The episode is expected to launch in November.
Zelitzky said she hoped her podcast listeners learn that life after 70 holds promise and opportunity — that while they may experience loss and health challenges, they can still remain "vital and vibrant and as active as possible."
"We believe that we're creating an intergenerational community, and people 50 and over found value in listening to the stories of the women we share," she said. "They will see best ways, best practices, how to structure their lives as they get older, how to think financially, how to think legally, how to think health-wise. It's a lot that they can take away."