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Relationships In praise of older orcas and the value of postmenopausal life

Swim in this orca moment, ladies.

Discussion about older women is not always so kind. I don't know about you, but never have I heard someone describe a woman as "menopausal" or "postmenopausal" to mean she is wise. The description is usually accompanied by a roll of the eyes and a suggestion that she pour herself a glass of wine. And yes, men are usually the ones to say it – although not always. Women, too, see the state of being in menopause as a bad thing. We can be misogynistic to ourselves.

Personally, I hate that word. It has mega-baggage. You start imagining boxy pantsuits and frumpy shoes. People talk about it as though it exists only as a capitalized event – The Change. And you expect jokes. Menopausal comedy shows have to be the most passive-aggressive forms of entertainment out there. Make those ladies laugh about the thing they fear and dread. They'll leak urine for sure!

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But that's all changing – slowly. Partly, it's because we're living longer so there are rocking octogenarians like Gloria Steinem around to prove that age doesn't matter.

And then there are the orcas (a.k.a. killer whales). Recently, a study of female orcas shed light on the value of postmenopausal life.

Orcas are one of three vertebrate species in which females live well beyond their reproductive years. Short-finned pilot whales are another. And humans. Female orcas live into their 90s even though they stop breeding at 40. The males generally live to 50. Last week, scientists at the University of Exeter in England found that postmenopausal orca females were 32 and 57 per cent more likely than non-menopausal adult orca females or adult males, respectively, to lead the pod. When their staple food was in short supply, the menopausal females were significantly more likely to lead the group. They have the accumulated wisdom to know where to find those elusive chinook salmon.

"Menopause is one of nature's great mysteries," said Lauren Brent, one of the researchers. Theoretically, it doesn't make sense. The purpose of survival is reproduction, so what's the point for an animal to remain alive past her reproductive years?

"The value gained from the wisdom of elders can help explain why female resident killer whales and humans continue to live long after they have stopped reproducing," read the study that was published in Current Biology. Brent noted that in human societies, writing hadn't developed for "almost the entirety of our evolution" so information had to be stored in the minds of individuals. This was essential for survival.

That it took a study of whales to illuminate the value of postmenopausal life says something about the culture's lack of interest in human female sexuality. But, hey, let's not grumble.

Besides, orcas are a rather pleasant sisterhood in which to belong. They have those designer black-and-white coats. They slip through the water gracefully. (Let's not dwell on the feeling of being a beached whale, as many of us are known to do.) They communicate telepathically, which is like giving your husband "the look" from the across the room at a party to indicate it's time to leave.

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Nice words to describe older women are few and far between. They are "of a certain age" which suggests they're past their best-buy date. They are crones, hags or witches. Well, no thank you.

I propose being "orcal," which is close to oracle and suggests that we divine things.

As it happens, last week an influential group of lawmakers in Britain agreed. They suggested that Britain's security agencies should look to recruit more middle-aged women and mothers to be spies. "Women and mothers of middle-age or mid-career have valuable life experience," said Hazel Blears, a member of the Intelligence and Security Committee.

Perfect! I thought. Middle-aged women often complain about being invisible, but, hey, a good spy should be!

"Women have to get over this idea that it's all over after menopause," says Christiane Northrup, a gynecologist/ obstetrician and leading authority on women's well-being. "We talk a lot about gender equality and how to achieve that in the culture, but older women are really second-class after the head of the harem no longer wants to bed them," says Northrup, who has numerous books including The Wisdom of Menopause and Goddesses Never Age.

In indigenous cultures, you couldn't be a shaman until after your ovaries had packed up, she told me. "You retain all your blood. It doesn't leak out. Which means you retain your wisdom." Uh huh, I said meekly into the phone at this point in our interview.

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This kind of kooky, woo-woo talk doesn't help, if you ask me. I tune out. In my mind, it just makes those people easier to dismiss or marginalize. Years ago, I interviewed Shirley MacLaine. She was about 74 at the time. We got into her past life and UFO bafflegab, of course (which could be seen as a somewhat desperate way to stay in the cultural spotlight.) But once she got over that, she had some valuable insights.

"I'm having a wonderful time in my life now with my platonic relationships," she told me. "When the sexual tension is off the requirement of the interplay, then you get to who the people really are."

Hormones are a drug. Wonderful and exciting for sure. But highly influential. Guys talk about beer goggles. Well, estrogen goggles can make you see men as far more interesting and attractive than they really are. Once you're in menopause, it's as if someone has taken you to rehab.

The trick to enjoying it is not to see it as an end of something – which the name implies – but as a beginning of something new. Like living clean.

In 1993, in The Fountain of Age, Betty Friedan set out to dispel the "mystique of aging" in the same way she challenged the prevailing cultural views in The Feminine Mystique, her seminal book in 1963. "It's a different stage of life, and if you're going to pretend it's youth, you are going to miss it," she told a reporter at the time. "You're going to miss the surprises, the possibilities and the evolution that we are just beginning to know about because there are no role models and there are no guide posts and there are no signs."

Spoken like a true orca.

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