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Men’s Shed Movement – Building Support for Aging

Men’s Shed Movement – Building Support for Aging

By Dave Price

As the 21st Century dawned, medical experts in Australia noticed an alarming trend – a disturbing increase in chronic health problems, alcohol abuse, drug addiction, and even suicide among the country’s aging men.

A series of studies concluded that much of the problem stemmed from a sense of loneliness and isolation many men were feeling from such life-changing experiences as abrupt job loss, retirement, the death of a spouse, divorce, or the relocation of family and friends.

Also Read: The Perils of Aging for Men

A novel solution was proposed.

Communities should create “men’s sheds,” communal work-and-play places where men could get together to bounce ideas off each other for improving their communities and, at the same time, share skills such as woodworking, vehicle repair, or other crafts to accomplish that goal.

Knowing that men are often reluctant to discuss feelings (there is an Australian saying that men don’t talk face-to-face, they talk shoulder-to-shoulder), the belief was that a valuable byproduct of such sheds would be to provide a sense of camaraderie that would reduce the life-threatening effects of alienation so many older men were facing.

The results of the first experiments exceeded the experts’ expectations.

From the initial two sheds, there are now more than 1,000 such facilities in Australia, and the idea has migrated to England, Ireland, and Canada. A national organization has been formed in the United States to promote the idea there.

So, what exactly is a men’s shed and how has it proven to be so beneficial?

The most basic answer, according to Chris Lee, a trustee of the UK Men’s Shed Association, is “whatever the shedders (the name shed members call themselves) want it to be.

“Despite the name, it’s not necessarily a shed. It could be a room in a community center, a sports pavilion, an empty garage, or even, in one case, a disused mortuary,” Lee told Booming Encore. “Sometimes it can be a single-purpose-built workshop, but that’s not usually where shed groups start out. For most shedders, it’s about meeting like-minded people and doing something valuable. The health benefits follow as a byproduct. Men’s sheds have proven to keep older men happier and healthier for longer through offering a connection with people and a sense of belonging. Sheds are really about prevention. The idea is to keep people out of the health services as long as possible.”

Barry Golding, the president of the Australian Men’s Shed Association, explains the greatest value of men’s sheds this way: “Take a health professional to a shed and they see health education and improvement. Take a community development worker and they see community-building going on. Take an educational worker in and they see informal lifelong learning. A men’s shed is really just the vehicle to achieve these society-changing benefits to both individuals and their communities.

Lee says that while older men might have superficial conversations with fellow men at pubs, bars, clubs, and sporting events, the deeper bonds formed at a shed allow participants to hold informal talks about more personal subjects.

Unlike women of a similar age and stage, older men tend not to have networks of close friends and rarely share personal concerns about health, relationships, and work worries – you know, the big stuff,” the trustee explained.

In Australia, the median age of a shedder is 69. Sheds accept members as young as 18, but most of the men involved are over 50.

Of course, this is an age of gender equality. So how do women fit into the growing shed movement?

Sheds can, and do, admit women, but the primary focus should always be on alleviating aging problems particular to men, founders say.

However, women should always be involved in recruiting new shed members, organizers maintain. “Most men find their way to a shed via a woman, be it a partner, a daughter, or a neighbor. This is because women ‘get’ the shed concept before men,” Lee noted. “Traditionally, men are bad at making new friends, seeking new experiences, trying out new things and women can encourage them to make that leap.”

Australian suggestions indicate that in an “ideal” shed, one-third of the working time would be spent on personal projects, one-third on projects to benefit the community, and one-third making or repairing income-generating items to cover the cost of operating the shed.

As the sheds have developed, another benefit has been discovered. “Joining a shed is also a way older men can prepare for retirement so it can become a slope rather than a cliff edge,” Lee said. “It helps men prepare for a time when full-time work is no longer the way they define themselves and keep themselves occupied in a purposeful activity. This is particularly the case when personal identity and status have revolved around employment, when even something like wearing a uniform can give individuals a sense of self-worth.”

So, if you and a group of like-thinkers believe setting up a shed in your community would be a good idea, exactly how to you start?

Lee suggests roughing out what you want as your mission and how you should best design the shed to accomplish that. Once that has been established, you need to figure out what the shed will cost to open and operate.

A men’s shed cannot exist on fresh air and good will alone,” Lee said. “The actual costs involved – insurance, premises, heat, light, tea bags (or, in America, coffee) – will vary. Aim for sustainability from the start. If you are able to have a grant-funded shed, then you can offer free access. If not, you need to come up with a reasonable charge shedders will pay to cover costs.

Also, don’t go public too early,” Lee advises. When you widely publicize your shed, make sure people can walk straight in. If you have public meetings too early, people get excited about the possibility of joining the shed, but then are disappointed if they have to wait six months for you to open your doors.

Lee also has words of caution about the men’s shed program.

We believe every community can benefit from having a local men’s shed,” Lee said. “But just because this is a good idea, it doesn’t mean it should be imposed or forced. The lead must come from the men concerned. Also, sheds should not become low-cost dumping grounds for people the state system cannot afford to support. Sheds can benefit from public services, but they are not qualified to take the place of public services.”

Here’s more information about the Mens’ Shed Movement in the following video report:

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Dave Price operates a freelance writing/speaking/consulting/tour guiding practice in Washington, D.C., where he focuses on 3 topics – the Baby Boomer generation, classic rock, and issues on aging, especially those affecting men. A former journalist and educator, Price is researching 2 books, one on the status of classic rock music and its songs, performers, and fans today and the other a DC guidebook designed especially for Baby Boomers.