By Madeleine Andrew-Gee
Social Connectedness Fellow 2017
“Getting things done, TOGETHER.”
This is the message that greets you on the homepage of the Canadian Men’s Shed website — emphasis and all. A Men’s Shed can quite literally be a shed, or a similar space, where men can gather and create together, usually with the aim of giving back to their community. Each shed is different, emphasizing a key pillar of the programming that spaces are to cater to their member’s needs. For example, one shed might be more interested in music, another might focus on woodworking, and another might make volunteer work their central focus. Regardless of their specific activities, the goal is the same: for men to work and create a community side-by-side, with “men looking after men.”
This movement, which started in Australia, has since spread and gained traction internationally with new locations across Europe, Canada, and the United States. Australia alone has over 1,000 individual Men’s Sheds. What makes these independent organizations so popular? The answer is simple: there is a need for this kind of programming. Men, especially older men, are at high-risk of experiencing social isolation.
Doug Mackie, the co-founder of Men’s Shed Manitoba, asks, “Why is there a need? Where does this epidemic of isolation come from?” Billy Baker, a journalist for the Boston Globe, explored this question at length in his article, “The biggest threat facing middle-aged men isn’t smoking or obesity. It’s loneliness.” Baker explains that friendships and social connection are often left by the way-side when life gets busy with work and families, and that men’s friendships of a certain generation often revolve around an activity or a project.
Isolation experienced during a busy career can also be augmented with retirement and aging. An increase in the number of older people living alone — a third of people over 65 — contributes to the rise in the isolation of men. Baker explains the dangers of men’s isolation by saying, “In 2015, a huge study out of Brigham Young University, using data from 3.5 million people collected over 35 years, found that those who fall into the categories of loneliness, isolation, or even simply living on their own see their risk of premature death rise 26 to 32%.”
Providing an outlet where isolated individuals can re-connect and create is key to improved happiness — and may even prove to be lifesaving. “My diary didn’t have anything in it, I would just sit at home,” says Dan Brem of the Strathfield Men’s Shed. Mr. Brem explains that he had consistent thoughts of suicide until he found the Men’s Shed Movement, where he was welcomed and encouraged to speak openly. “You get the peer support to self-help, and support is necessary for everybody.”
Men’s health can also be dramatically impacted by isolation and lack of friendships. In “Social Isolation is a Serious Dilemma for Too Many Men,” Elmwood Watson explains, “There has been a plethora of studies providing evidence that men who are largely friendless are living in an unhealthy situation, often resort to alcohol, engage in drug use, suffer from depression…” Men’s Sheds are helping to combat this environment of loneliness. According to the Canadian chapter, Men’s Sheds “help men come together, stay productive, and contribute to the community — all of which are keys to good overall health.” This focus — on improving the mental, social and physical health of men — is central to the movement. “It is a preventative method,” says Ted Donnelly, a founding member of the first Australian Shed. “Men are brought up to have a stiff upper lip and not to talk about things and that’s ‘part of being a man,’ but that’s one of the biggest differences I see in the Men’s Shed — that men are able to talk more freely about various things.”
Although some may perceive these organizations as another iteration of ‘man caves’ or other forms of exclusively male clubs, in reality, Men’s Sheds are working to break the stigma around masculine connection and emotion. By working shoulder to shoulder, the generations old stereotype of men as emotionally isolated is being broken down. It is not just about woodworking. In Scotland and Ireland, for example, the passing down of traditional knowledge, such as weaving, is a key component of Sheds. The Scottish group, Age Scotland, has produced a report of testimonials called, “The Shed Effect,” about the diverse ways Scottish sheds are creating community.
Moving forward, these powerful tools for connection and positive action should continue to diversify and welcome new members with diverse interests. In the meantime, these organizations are bringing individuals together to do seemingly simple tasks — work, talk, give back — and in the process, become less lonely by fostering a sense of connectedness.