The Men’s Shed Association.
This marvellous organisation helps retired men to meet new people and pursue creative activities by helping them set up communal workshop spaces or ‘sheds’. Some sheds are in garages, some are empty offices, some are warehouses and one was even set up in a disused mortuary. The men in them, known as Shedders, practice a dizzying array of crafts, including woodwork, metalwork, leatherwork, electronics and even car building. They also do projects for their community like fixing bikes and building things for schools.
Why are men’s sheds needed?
When you speak to members of a men’s shed, it’s not uncommon to hear things like “It saved my marriage.” Or “It save my life”.
When men retire, it can often feel like their sense of identity and purpose has been lost. A lot of men’s social lives are based around work, and they can end up alone or ‘under their wives’ feet’ in the house. Although most members are retired, there are an increasing number of members who are younger. Many of them are ex-forces, or performing the role of primary carer at home.
It’s well known that men in these situations typically find it more difficult to build social connections than women and are less likely to share personal worries or concerns about their health. The impact of this isolation can be extreme. Men are three times more likely to commit suicide than women, and research shows that loneliness can be as hazardous to your health as obesity of excessive smoking.
Amazingly, members report that going to a shed can help with all these problems. Not only can men learn new skills, but they also meet likeminded people and have someone to share their worries with. They gain a renewed sense of purpose and belonging and are more likely to deal with health issues sooner, which can increase their life expectancy. As one Shedder put it: “It’s the hour and a half where we sit down together in our break room and have a cup of tea and a bacon role, that’s the Men’s Shed.”
We had a chat with Geoff Allison, a Men’s Shed ambassador and founder of the shed in Dalbeattie, Scotland, which was recently voted men’s shed of the year.
Tell us a little bit about what your shed does specifically...
“We set up our men’s shed way back in 2014 and always intended it to be a practical shed that makes and mends things. It's about 4000 square feet now and has five workshops, and we do lots and lots of things - woodwork to metalwork, welding and wrought iron work, fixing small engines, 3d printing, leathercraft pyrography and lots more.”
That’s incredible! And you said before it's basically a place for men to go who have had some kind of disruption in their lives. What does that mean?
“Well, we started off as a group of retired men. But we've found that not all are retired, we have some men who have become carers for their partners. And that's a very isolating activity. I know because I, I've had five years of that myself. And they love to come to the shed for a couple of hours and just get out of the house. And we also have our younger members, most of whom are ex-servicemen, who have probably had a hard time transferring from military life to civilian life. And some of them are quite injured, suffering physically or mentally, and so I think the common ground of the retirees, the carers and the military men is a discontinuity. Their social life used to be tied up with what they were doing. And suddenly, something's changed. And the social life comes to an end they become isolated.”
What do you think is special about sheds for men in that situation?
"If you forget about pubs and betting shops, there's just not a lot for men to do to socialise. They can be very isolated. There are lots of coffee clubs and whatever, but that doesn't seem to appeal to men. But what do you know, when there's some nice machinery to play with a and a chance to go out and do something, they love it.
I retired in 2009. I was I was gone 65 and my wife was suffering from dementia. I spent five years 24/7 looking after my wife as Alzheimers, gradually took her away from me. And previous to retirement, of course, I'd travelled around a lot. And again, I was one of these guys, where most of my social life outside the house was with work."
What would you say was the impact on your own sort of mental health as you as you started going to the shed? You'd had a rough five years, up until that point…
"After I’d been looking after my wife for 5 years, eventually I collapsed. And in 2014, my wife went into residential care and I was left alone in a in a house in a town where I didn't know that many people. These days I’ve got something to get my teeth into and I'm also spending less time at the doctor's."
Do you think you've improved your physical health as well?
"Oh, absolutely. Yeah it’s been amazing. And a lot of the guys say the same. In the shed movement we often say that instead of talking face to face, we talk ‘shoulder to shoulder’ while we’re working on something. We open up to each other and sometimes encourage each other to go to the doctor if there’s a problem. Often there’s someone in the shed who has had a similar issue in the past."
Why do you think doing stuff with your hands appeals so much to go guys from your generation?
"We’re from the make and mend era. And if you go back to the sort of post war time, things were built to last.
Most people secondary school back then had trades training, training in some sort of workshop, usually woodshop, but some guys did metal craft and other things as well. Nowadays, the schools do very little of that. It seems to have been dropped. And again, a lot of our possessions are single use now, and when they when they get to be a problem, we throw them away. But there are still people who have treasured possessions that are fixable and the Shedders can help the with that."
Do you think learning to use your hands is good for people?
"Oh yeah, absolutely. It’s the pride. We had a lady ring us several years ago, and she said “My husband is Italian. And he doesn't speak much English, although he's lived here for 20 or 30 years. The children are grown up and, you know, he’s a bit under my feet in the house. Do you think you can take him to the shed? He's not practical, but can you take him along and do something?” And we said yes, fine."
So you took him in?
"Oh yes! Anyway when he came in, a guy was making chopping boards out of strips of waste hardwood. And he said, he'd like a go at that. So he made one. He planed it all down, stained it, and he engraved it with the name of one of his sons. And it's become a bit of a joke now, because every time he gets back from Italy these days the first thing he does is start looking for wood to make chopping boards out of. And his delight in being able to do it is enormous. It was the first thing he’d ever really made."