Family, health and life events and the menopause

The menopause does not happen in isolation. Midlife is a time when changes in family dynamics, health problems and significant life events may coincide with menopausal symptoms. Women talked about what else was happening in their lives at the time of the menopause. Caring responsibilities for children and parents, bereavement, chronic illness and disease, divorce, financial concerns and other factors seemed to make symptoms worse and in some cases even to bring on the menopause.

Family life
Women’s lives are complex, particularly at midlife. As well as balancing a work life with domestic responsibilities, women may be caring for young children, teenagers, grandchildren, ageing parents, and in some cases their partner. Women talked about the strain of looking after toddlers alongside older children, of caring for children with special needs, of supporting teenagers through exams, and of children leaving home only to return at some stage to fill the ‘empty nest’. As the mother of two teenage boys put it, ‘Menstrual mother, teenage boys, just are not a healthy mix’.

Several women had become increasingly responsible for the well-being of older parents and in-laws. Instead of being free to pursue their own goals in later life they may have to ‘juggle between generations’, help with grandchildren, and be weighed down by a reversal in roles as parents become more dependent on their support and practical help. As part of the ‘sandwich generation’, some women felt they were being pulled in different directions, unable to please everybody, and some also felt guilty.

As well as caring responsibilities, worries about the family, relationship breakdowns, work, finances and the future can add to the burden of uncertainty, anxiety and stress women feel around the menopause.

Though difficult to prove, some women wonder whether they may be more susceptible to ill-health as their oestrogen levels fall. The menopause and the onset of chronic health conditions may be connected. Conditions such as asthma, underactive thyroid, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and arthritis, may be diagnosed or get worse around the menopause. Women also mentioned flare ups in ulcerative colitis, depression and kidney problems. Several women diagnosed with cancer at this time faced their own mortality (see ‘Changes in the body and keeping healthy’) (see our sites on: ‘Breast cancer’, ‘Breast screening’, ‘Cervical cancer’ and ‘Cervical screening’).

As well as their own health issues, women may also be supporting family members living with chronic illness and disease. Women spoke of their concerns for family members and friends suffering from conditions such as cancer, M.E., stroke, heart attack and diabetes.

Midlife is also a time when women may lose a partner, parents, brothers and sisters, and close friends. They feel devastated when parents die and realise that they are now ‘the one who’s at the edge’. Loss may be felt in other ways too. Women spoke about their sadness at being unable to communicate with parents diagnosed with dementia. Without the support networks they have relied on in the past for advice and reassurance, women can feel very lonely as they cope with the menopause (see ‘Support networks’).

The menopause takes place against a backdrop of everyday life, with its joys, challenges, responsibilities and concerns. Many women are unsure whether it is the menopause, or other health issues and/or family events that are making them feel tired, unwell and at times miserable.

Last reviewed July 2018.

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