Menopause Cafe: Breaking down taboos over cake and coffee

One of the great things about running 50Sense is how much I’m learning from all the comments, messages and emails I’ve received about women going through the menopause. One of the ones that really sparked my interest was from Rachel on 10 Questions About the Menopause: A Doctor Answers when she mentioned how she’d held a Menopause Cafe to find other women going through the same thing – and the men supporting them.

Being all about women talking about the menopause and sharing their stories, I thought this was a fantastic idea and got in touch with the people behind the Menopause Cafe, who kindly agreed to tell me more…

How did Menopause Cafe start?

Menopause Cafe was started by Rachel Weiss, a partner at Rowan Consultancy counselling service in Perth, Scotland. It occurred to her that out of all predictable life events, menopause was not one she was prepared for. As she subscribes to the “Forewarned is forearmed” school of thought, this did not sit well with her.

Consequently Rachel set about to change this and the Menopause Cafe movement was born. A Facebook post lead to two local ladies – Lorna Fotheringham and Gail Jack – helping her run the world’s very first Menopause Cafe at Blend Coffee Lounge in Perth on 12 June, 2017. There have now been more than 120 individual Menopause Cafe events held all over the UK, from Southampton to Aberdeen, Bangor in Northern Ireland to Cambridge. There’s even been one in Toronto, Canada.

A year later, Menopause Cafe became a Scottish Charitable Incorporated Organisation. It is run entirely by six volunteers, all with busy day jobs and families.

The first Menopause Cafe in Perth

Why do you think it was needed?

That is probably best answered with a couple of questions. How many of us have openly discussed menopause with family, friends or colleagues? And, how many of us are actually prepared for our own menopause?

We talk about menstruation/periods more openly than ever before – likewise sex – but the topic of menopause seemed to us to still be one of the last few taboo subjects.

We live in an information-on-demand, all-connected world, but how many women know what to expect from their menopause? Whether natural, chemical or surgical, menopause can really throw women a curve ball and that doesn’t take into account the peri-menopausal years, ie those years leading up to menopause when a whole raft of seemingly unrelated symptoms can appear. At best we know to expect hot flushes and night sweats, but the menopause can potentially be so much more than these two (admittedly horrid) symptoms.

What does a Menopause Cafe involve?

A Menopause Cafe is a group-directed discussion. There are no speakers, no set agenda and the events do not promote any particular product, service or outcome. It involves men and women, young and old gathering together in a relaxed, respectful environment to discuss menopause over a cup of tea or coffee and a slice of cake (or two!). That’s it. The format is terribly simple and based on the Death Cafe model developed by the late Jon Underwood, where people discuss death.

How can women start one?

Anyone can host a Menopause Cafe – men and women. We had Eddie Hughes, the MP for Walsall North, host a Menopause Cafe in Walsall this year. We’ve created a “how to host a Menopause Cafe” guide to show hosts what to do.

After reading the guide, potential hosts send us a signed Working With Us Agreement, to say you’ll abide by our principles, and we then work in partnership with hosts to help them plan and deliver their Menopause Cafe.

You had a Menopause Festival – what did that involve?

The Menopause Festival – or #FlushFest as we coined it – was tremendous fun. We organised four Saturday afternoons packed with events designed to uplift, enlighten and leave participants feeling a wee bit brighter.

We had short presentations and demonstrations from holistic practitioners, a Menopause Marketplace, a talk and a Q&A session with menopause specialist Dr Laura Jarvis, from the Tayside Menopause Clinic. And if that wasn’t enough, we were joined by professional stylist and all round garment-guru Edith Adams, who, with grace and humour, introduced everyone to their own individual colour palates and helped us see where we could tweak or augment our existing wardrobes to maximise our assets.

However by far the most popular element of #FlushFest was the singing, or Menopause-a-longs, as we like to refer to the sessions. Local singer, songwriter and musical marvel Debra Salem delivered three singing sessions. She rewrote the words of a selection of popular 1980s hit songs to give them a menopausal flavour – Donna Summers Hot Stuff became Hot Flush and we even had an adapted version of the Bee Gee’s Tragedy which contained, among other fabulous lyrics:

“Sweats and chills
And vaginal dryness all new to me
Down I’ll go
If I try to make it all alone”

So popular were these sessions that Debra and the #FlushFest Menopause Choir were invited by Women of the World to open the WOW-Perth Festival in October 2018.  

Feedback from #FlushFest2018 included:

“Great community spirit” – “Liberating!” – “Feel empowered – “Hugely positive experience” – “Very uplifting”

We are now beavering away in earnest to fundraise for #FlushFest2019 – yes, we are doing it all over again next year. And, it will be bigger, brighter and bursting with creative elements.

To help raise funds, at the beginning of this month, Rachel and her fellow “Menoteers”  Heather Borderie, Andy Sanwell and Helen Kemp, together with Dr Laura and Chris Whitehead from Rowan (and Bobby the dog), took part in the Perth Santa 5K fun run, all dressed in Santa suits complete with beards and bells. Our fundraising figure currently stands at a little more than £750 and our donation page remains open should anyone still wish to support our work.

#FlushFest2019 takes place on 26-27 April at Perth Theatre on Mill Street, Perth. Full information can be found here.

Rachel Weiss, the founder of Menopause Cafe

What is the most important message you think menopausal women should know?

In one very succinct sentence: you are not alone.

And this really is true. Feedback from our events is overwhelming positive and one theme that runs through all of the messages we receive is: “Thank goodness I now know I’m not alone.”

The power of this sentiment really shouldn’t be underestimated and while it is a cliché that a problem shared is a problem halved, it really is true. Sharing symptoms, tips and stories allows attendees to experience the bond of common humanity and that in itself can be uplifting and boost morale during what can be a tumultuous time in a woman’s life.

Another message that we try to convey through the spirit of our events is a quote from our patron Kirsty Wark, who said in her 2017 documentary The Insider’s Guide to the Menopause:  “We are not in retreat.”

No, we most certainly are not. Join forces with us, host your own Menopause Cafe event and together we can help keep the conversations about menopause going.

I don’t know about you, but I’m now even more excited about this idea than before and am already planning to host a Menopause Cafe next year. If you’re in Canterbury, watch this space. What about you? Leave me a comment below…

Photos: Andy Sanwell. Menopause Cafe.

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