By Emily Turner, VOICES Co-ordinator
I arrived at the menopause café in Bramley not really knowing what to expect. Turning 40 this month, in terms of having a personal experience with menopause, I’m not quite there yet, but I’m acutely aware that this could happen sooner than I think and actually, ashamedly, I don’t even know that much about menopause. More to the point though, women all around us are going through menopause, in our homes, friendship groups and workplaces, meaning that it’s not just about us as individuals and shouldn’t be dealt with as such. It’s about families, communities and workforces.
When I arrived, there was a lady there, not much older than me who told her story of a huge battle with early menopause, not just the symptoms but also people around her, doctors, treatment and coping at work. She had a lot of experience, was a great advocate of HRT treatment, and had some useful tips that she was keen to share. She told me she was very open about menopause, but that was unusual and most women don’t talk about it at all. It’s the stigma attached to women and aging generally, she told me; grey hair (more silver foxes than silver vixens), changes in body shape; wrinkles. In society ‘she’ is definitely past it before ‘he’ is. It simply seems as if men and women just don’t want to talk about menopause.
More group members gradually showed up and, in the end, there were seven women there. It was lovely to see them greeting each other like long lost friends and getting the kettle on for a brew. They had obviously grown really close, bonded over this issue, indeed, one lady told me that the most important thing the group had done for her was knowing that she wasn’t alone. She said that before the group she would never in a million years talk about the menopause, even with her husband, but now she is putting up posters in her GP, and talking with her colleagues and boss at work.
Menopause and work were a common theme for the women at the café. They all said the workplace was a particularly difficult place for a woman suffering with menopause symptoms. Stories shared included: feeling embarrassed about getting out a fan to put on the desk when suffering with hot sweats, lying about why you’re sick and need a day off, and developing new ways to deal with memory loss and a ‘foggy head’, such as writing notes and reminders. As every woman spoke, the others nodded enthusiastically with a knowing smile. These women were not alone, and this was the only place they could talk about it, including all the embarrassing stuff like vaginal dryness, flatulence and depression.
The link with menopause and mental health & wellbeing was acutely obvious. Women can be dealing with so much at this time in their lives, often juggling full time demanding jobs, looking after elderly family members, and still with young children at home. Then on top of that, a cocktail of difficult menopause related symptoms and outcomes, hot flushes, memory loss, lack of sleep, low mood, anxiety, headaches, palpitations and reoccurring urine infections. And this can last years, between 10 to 15 years for many women in the group.
We then started exploring ideas to make this all better and easier to deal with. The main thing for all the women was opportunities to talk about it with other women going through the same thing, to share tips and ideas, and not feel alone. They got this from the menopause café, although they did admit that it was always the same members who came, and they wanted to reach out to new members. All the women told me there should be more menopause cafes and more effort to get the word out. One idea was to inform local GP’s so they could refer women that present in their surgeries. An easy win.
When talking about the workplace the women thought it would be a good idea to have policies that explicitly mention menopause in regards to sick leave, and also mental health, and bullying at work policies, so it was a recognised issue. One woman told me that men at work had often joked, “you’re not having a menopausal moment, are you?” If menopause is not mentioned in policy, it implies your employer doesn’t care about this issue, or understand, which further knocks confidence and in turn, productivity.
Another area for improvement that was discussed was medication and specialist doctors. Apparently, there is only one NHS specialist in Leeds, who is overrun with referrals, and according to the women I spoke to, GPs are not given any specialist training on the issue. The issue with HRT medication is that there’s often medication shortages. This however, is in relation to specific brands, rather than the drug itself. GP’s prescribe brands, meaning that pharmacies may stock the drug under a different brand but can’t give to patients. This means they have to return to the GP for another prescription, but even knowing about this process is unlikely. This causes time and stress issues, along with women having breaks in their treatment.
And finally, education. Why isn’t menopause discussed with young people in schools, alongside existing conversations about periods and sex? As mentioned earlier, this issue not only affects individual women, but families, communities and workforces. Education should be the tool to tackle discrimination and ignorance, and also play a key role in giving women the confidence to talk, share and support each other.
I spent an hour and a half with the women at the menopause café and they taught me everything I know about menopause. I’ve literally never had a conversation about it, which I now find quite shocking as a woman just turned 40, heading in that very direction. Its all about breaking down barriers and stigma, increasing awareness, building confidence, knowing you are not alone, and talking. And one way to address this is through menopause cafes. Oh, and cake, there must always be cake.