1 March 2019

Shedding loneliness

Active retired senior people old friends and leisure group of three elderly men having fun laughing and talking in city park. Waist up
Suvi Mahonen

Suvi Mahonen

Suvi is a journalist whose work has appeared in numerous publications in Australia and overseas

On Valentine’s Day, 2011, Noel Findley’s heart was racing as he walked up the path towards a large, non-descript shed, in Cessnock, NSW.

But it wasn’t for romantic reasons that his heart was aflutter. He was happily married and he’d just shared a pleasant breakfast with his wife. Nor was it the grey, monolithic tombstones, sprouting from the grounds of the cemetery that ran along the property’s edge. Rather it was anxiety, at the thought of spending time with a bunch of strange men. 

Having been forced into early retirement as a boilermaker due to health problems, Mr Findley had spent most of the past six years at home battling depression. “I would be sitting in the lounge and I’d just start crying,” he said. “It seemed that the weight of the world was on my shoulders.” He had tried to hide his true feelings from his wife. “I didn’t want to drag her down with me.”

Mr Findley, who was 63 at the time, missed the mateship and banter that came with his former work at the local council. He had no close friends, and no-one apart from his wife to talk to.

Since that day at the Cessnock Men’s Shed things have changed for the better. “When I went into the shed someone came up to me and said, ‘Do you want to do something?’” Mr Findley said. “They needed a guard for a fan belt so I grabbed some steel and welded one together. And they said, ‘Oh, that was quick’, and that’s when I knew this place was for me.” 

Loneliness and social isolation are strongly associated with a range of physical and mental health conditions, including depression and increased suicide rate[1].

In 2010, as part of the Australian Government’s first ever national male health policy, $3 million was granted to the Australian Men’s Shed Association (AMSA) in recognition of the fact that “Men’s sheds play an important role in the community by providing meeting places where men can find support and camaraderie”.

The policy went on to state that “Healthy social networks provide males with similar positive benefits to successful marriages” and that men’s sheds were “a way of establishing friendships and social networks, and engaging in purposeful activity[2].”   

“Years ago, the theory was that you get a dozen men in a room with a facilitator and sit them down and say, ‘Okay, let’s all talk about our problems’,” AMSA’s chief executive David Helmers said. “Now you can imagine, a dozen burly blokes in that scenario, it just doesn’t work. But the way the men’s shed works is if you take those same dozen blokes but replace the facilitator with a broken lawnmower, give them some tools, and say, ‘Fix this lawnmower’, then if you come back in a few hours they would have discussed all their problems and having a very open conversation. Perhaps the lawnmower still won’t work, but it was irrelevant in the first place.”

During Mr Helmers’ long association with the Men’s Shed movement, he has seen the AMSA grow to more than 980 sheds in Australia today. “There are more men’s sheds than there are McDonald’s,” he said. “I would estimate that up to a quarter of a million blokes in Australia attend men’s sheds in some capacity.”

The AMSA is a loose association, with each shed being independently run. It will admit any shed that meets safety standards as long as the shed is a community-based, non-profit, non-commercial organisation that is accessible to all men and whose primary activity is the provision of a safe and friendly environment where men are able to work at meaningful projects.

“The sheds generate their own income,” Mr Helmers said. “But the product of the shed is really irrelevant. It’s the camaraderie that’s most important.”

Although men of all ages are welcome to attend, the vast majority are in the post-retirement demographic. “With men a lot of their social life revolves around the workplace,” Mr Helmers said. “But once that culture is removed you’re leaving a lot of people at high risk of social isolation.”

Some studies show that retirement can increase the likelihood of clinical depression by up to 40 per cent[3]. And a 2013 study conducted by the Centre for Research on Ageing, Health and Wellbeing found that men’s depression increased in later life, compared to women[4].  

Given these findings, and the fact that one of the stated major objectives of the AMSA is to “advance the wellbeing and health of their male members”, some view as controversial the association’s decision to admit “community sheds” that are open to female members.

And he agrees not everyone has been happy with the decision. “The debate’s been around for years,” he said. “But to be honest it hasn’t really been a big issue.”

Mr Helmers points out that many men’s sheds do not have the legal option to exclude women. “Most sheds are on public ground and no crown land department is going to allow the facilities to be used exclusively by one particular group, or discriminate against another group,” he said. “Everyone’s got opinions on this matter but laws are laws and we have to abide by them.

“Generally, we find with women joining the sheds that they want to learn skills or they’ve got a very good reason for wanting to join, but they fully respect that it’s a male domain,” he said. “It’s very small numbers. Some sheds will have specific women’s days. Some will have a formal women’s auxiliary group.”

Jan Morgan, 76, is a member of the Grawin-Glengarry-Sheepyards Opal Fields Men’s Shed. The shed has 20 members, four of whom are women. “I think women can contribute a lot to the sheds,” she said. “Out here on the fields there’s a lot of the girls who go mining, they drive trucks, they start generators, so we all work together to do what we’re capable of doing. And we women get friendship and social interaction from the shed, same as the men.”

Mrs Morgan admits that some of the men were against her joining at first, but have since accepted it, particularly when they saw the benefits. “When I make scones with strawberry jam and fresh cream, I do four dozen in one hit and they go in five minutes,” she said.

I asked the shed’s president, John, 74, who also happens to be Morgan’s husband, if he was happy his wife was a member. “Bloody oath,” he said.

However, this sense of inclusivity doesn’t suit everyone, nor is it the only reason that some men seek alternatives to AMSA affiliated men’s sheds.

Community development volunteer and journalist Ian McDougall, of Southport, Queensland, encouraged his father, Ronald McDougall, to join a men’s shed when he noticed that his father, who was 77 at the time, was becoming depressed. “But the shed didn’t really suit him,” McDougall said. “He wasn’t a woodworker and with hearing loss found communication and engagement difficult in that environment.”

So Mr McDougall came up with an alternative. “I called my idea ‘Blokes Lounge’ and envisioned a house or someplace where men could meet in an informal environment and come and go as they pleased,” he said.

He floated his idea on local media and in October 2012, seven men formed a “Blokes Lounge”, who in the early days met in the Broadbeach library. Since then the group has steadily grown and it now boasts 74 members who meet fortnightly at the Surfers Paradise Golf Club.

Mr McDougall is happy to defend the fact that they do not allow women at their meetings. “We want an environment where men are comfortable with other men and able to talk about issues from a male perspective,” he said.

As well as the meetings, the group runs activities that members can enjoy together such as cycling, card playing, golf and barbecues.

Rollo Meyers, 79, a retired dentist, says being part of Blokes Lounge gives him a sense of self-worth and friendship. “Our members come from all different walks of life,” he said. “The diversity in Blokes Lounge is so disparate to any other organisation I’ve ever been in.”

He agrees with McDougall that men need their own groups to belong to. “Women often like different things to men, like my wife has her girlfriends and she likes touring and shopping whereas in general men like a bit more action and adventure, so when we get home at night time we’ve got different things to talk about,” he said.

[1] Quotes given to me directly by a spokesperson for the Australian Government Department of Health.

[2]http://www.health.gov.au/internet/main/publishing.nsf/Content/7935AC78159969D4CA257BF0001C6B07/$File/MainDocument.pdf

[3] https://iea.org.uk/publications/research/work-longer-live-healthier-the-relationship-between-economic-activity-health-a

[4] https://www.researchgate.net/publication/247771167_Gender_differences_in_the_trajectories_of_late-life_depressive_symptomology_and_probable_depression_in_the_years_prior_to_death

 

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