Men’s Sheds started in Australia in the late 90s as hobby clubs, bringing together older, isolated men. In the UK over 40 Men’s Sheds have started in the past 10 years and both national and regional organisations are being developed. Older men are particularly at risk of isolation linked to a loss of purpose, and loss of the social circle which a lifetime of work and family life provided. This may lead to alcohol misuse, self-neglect, depression and higher rates of suicide than comparable women.

In the UK the Campaign to End Loneliness inform us that over 800,000 people describe themselves as ‘intensely lonely’ and it is the older men that are disproportionally affected. Ruxton (2006) explains that: ‘Their lack of social networks makes them more vulnerable to social isolation’ (p. 10) and this higher incidence of loneliness amongst older men adversely affects their health and well-being to a much greater extent than women of a similar age. As Holt-Lunstad et al. (2010) comment: ‘the influence of social relationships on the risk of death are comparable with well-established risk factors for mortality such as smoking and alcohol consumption and exceed the influence of other risk factors such as physical inactivity and obesity’ (p. 3).

Good health is based on many factors, including feeling good about yourself, being productive and valuable to your community, connecting to friends and maintaining an active body and an active mind. Becoming a member of a Men’s Shed gives a man that safe and busy environment where he can find many of these things in an atmosphere of friendship. And, importantly, there is no pressure.

Sheds are self-governing, cooperative places which are run and controlled by the men who are its members; they set the atmosphere which is to welcome anyone who wishes to join. This is important because research shows that men tend to retire with the aspiration not to be involved in hierarchical organisations. Members of Men’s Sheds can come from all walks of life – the bond that unites them is that they are men with time on their hands and they would like something meaningful to do with that time.

However, it is important to recognise that Sheds are located in their community and to succeed they must be in good contact with community activities, willing to support activities, and respected as a worthwhile organisation. It should also be recognised that Sheds would not get started without some help from commercial supporters and sponsors, who must see the Shed as worthwhile and contributing to the community, respected as an organisation which is worth supporting and has people who understand what the sponsors have to offer and want in return.

Sheds generally provide a small workshop facility, where men can use or relearn skills either individually or as a group, and can opt in at will. Also, there are quieter areas where men can find friendship and support over a ‘cup of tea’ and share the wealth of experiences and skills that they have acquired. The activities that go on in Sheds vary enormously. The most common activity is woodworking, but popular activities also include refurbishing tools to send to groups abroad, hobbies, appliance repairs, computer courses and new skills – from home decorating, talks and reading groups, to learning to cook again. The range of ages of the men that use a Shed varies greatly. In Ireland young men are encouraged to join, whilst in Scotland some Sheds cater for men who have long breaks as part of their work.

There is a common misperception that men are not skilled at talking about emotional matters, but the experience of ‘Sheds’ shows that this will happen in the correct setting. As an Australian logo says ‘men talk shoulder to shoulder, not face to face’. One of the most important features of a Shed is that it creates a degree of fellowship, and then it starts to become a supportive and safe environment for the members. It takes time, but difficult personal matters can be discussed in an atmosphere of safety and helpful relationships. The improvements in health and well-being are considerable and greatly appreciated by the men who participate, also by their partners and families.

With pressures to close day centres for older people the role of Men’s Sheds could be vital in maintaining a practical, social space for men who would otherwise feel isolated. Interested parties include housing associations and social services, but the majority find us by word of mouth, and we have a complementary, working relationship with other organisations supporting older people. We do note, however, that some organisations fail to involve isolated men, often because of the way ‘services were structured, managed, staffed and organised’ (Ruxton, 2006, p. 4)

It would be misleading to see Men in Sheds as exclusively male, although obviously the target group is older men. Women can contribute much as supporters, referrers and visitors, much as men can for women’s organisations such as the Women’s Institute. From the outset, Sheds run best when the men, their partners, family and the community are involved.

Why not look up these websites and if there isn’t a Shed near you, why not start one?

The UK Association of Men’s Sheds is at: http://menssheds.org.uk/. 

The Irish Association has much to offer at www.menssheds.ie. 

The Australian Association with everything from recipes to how to respond in emergencies is at: www.mensheds.org.au.

References

Campaign to End Loneliness (nd) Connections in Older People (constituency campaign pack), Campaign to End Loneliness, London. 

Holt-Lunstad, J., Smith, T.B., Layton, J.B. (2010) ‘Social Relationships and Mortality Risk: A Meta-analytic review’, PLoS Med. 7(7). http://www.plosmedicine.org/article/info:doi/10.1371/journal.pmed.1000316 

Ruxton, S. (2006) Working with Older Men: A Review of Age Concern Services, London, Research and Development Unit, Age Concern.

Acknowledgement

My thanks to Tony Wilson, MISIS, for his contribution to this article: http://www.misis.org.uk/

John Slowley