Retirement can be hard on men; Men’s Sheds provide a renewed sense of meaning and belonging
By Wendy Haaf
All Mike Jennings was looking for was a workshop, but the Coquitlam, BC, resident ended up finding a great deal more.
“I had a nice workshop in my business,” says the former owner of an equipment sales company. “I would work all day, and then at 4:30 p.m., I’d quit and go to work building small boats, which was my favourite thing to do.”
When he was 71, someone offered to buy his business. Suddenly pondering retirement, the single Jennings wondered, “What the heck would I do all day?” If he sold the business, he’d lose his workshop. The day after he discussed the problem with friends, a colleague showed him a newspaper article about Men’s Sheds.
A concept that originated in Australia in 2007, Men’s Sheds expanded the idea of a man’s backyard shed to a collaborative communal space where men can get together to do activities such as woodworking and repairing bicycles. The non-profit sheds sprang up as part of a grassroots effort to give older and retired men an opportunity to socialize, to learn new skills from one another, and, in many cases, to give back to the community. The idea spread, and today there are more than 900 Men’s Sheds in Australia and growing numbers in New Zealand, Ireland, the United Kingdom, the United States, and Canada. In some parts of the world, sheds receive government funding and assistance; in Canada, they rely on local organizers raising their own support and funds.
Since men very often define themselves by their occupation and socialize primarily through work, some find themselves at loose ends once the novelty of retirement wears off.
“I was typical,” says Dave Steventon of Mississippi Mills, ON. “I’d done the traditional kitchen makeover as soon as I retired, and after a vacation that year, there I was, in the second year of retirement wondering, Is this all there is?”
Bill Farley of the Dauphin (MB) Men’s Shed has seen a similar pattern repeat itself in his rural community. “What happens with farmers is they turn the farm over to their children, come into town and get an apartment, and that’s it—they don’t know what to do with themselves,” he says. “I’m talking about the men—the women are always busy,” he adds.
That last comment hints at why sheds are aimed specifically at men. Men are more likely than women to be socially isolated, and social isolation is linked with an array of ills, from coronary heart disease and stroke to dementia and a reduced lifespan.
“It’s crystal clear within the mental health field that social connection and social support are key determinants of physical and mental health,” says Corey MacKenzie, a professor of psychology and adjunct professor of psychiatry at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg. Social isolation and loneliness (which are tied to an increased risk for problems ranging from impaired immune response to loss of physical function) can also lead to depression (for which men are less likely to seek help than women), dependence on alcohol (twice as prevalent in men as among women), and even suicide (three to four times more common among men than among women).
“Isolation and loneliness—it all catches up to you,” says Farley, who was widowed five years ago. “It’s a slow encroachment of depression, and all of a sudden, you find yourself in a hole and you can’t get out of it.”
What’s more, research suggests that older men are often reluctant to join or participate in community programs that can help protect against some of these dangers. The concept behind Men’s Sheds is to overcome these barriers via some kind of shared activity.
MacKenzie describes the way a speaker at a Men’s Shed conference once explained the idea. “If you get a group of older guys together and sit them around a table, there’s going to be a lot of awkwardness,” he says. “But if you put those same guys around a broken lawn mower, they’re going to start talking and working together.”
Another aspect of sheds that may make them more appealing to men than some other programs is that participants may feel that they’re there to help others rather than themselves. “If you ask guys why they go to a shed, they might say, ‘Oh, there are guys there who value catching up and could do with a bit of a hand,’” explains John Oliffe, a professor and associate director of research at the University of British Columbia’s School of Nursing in Vancouver.
Independent and Unique
After contacting Doug Mackie at the Canadian Men’s Sheds Association (menssheds.ca) for guidance, Mike Jennings called a few friends, who expressed interest in helping to get the project off the ground. While trying to find a space for a workshop, the group initially met in a heritage home owned by a museum society, and then at a park or restaurant, depending on the weather. During that time, they met someone from a local homeless shelter, who “asked if we would volunteer to look after their vegetable garden, which we did,” Jennings says.
Learning that a co-op housing society had an unused maintenance shed, the Coquitlam Men’s Shed requested and was granted a lease in exchange for helping to spruce up vacant units in preparation for rental and set up shop with donated tools. Later, they also built raised vegetable beds for a few tenants, with the Coquitlam Sunrise Rotary Club covering the cost of materials.
Initially a group of just five or six, the shed’s membership numbered 15 when the group took possession of the property in January of 2019 and by mid-May had reached 33, with members from a wide variety of ethnic and vocational backgrounds.
Men’s Sheds are all independent, and each is unique, according to the needs of its members. The Dauphin Men’s Shed, for example, meets in an empty classroom in a former residential school and has tackled projects including the construction of a cat shelter for the Humane Society. There are plans for a number of other projects, such as lending a hand at a heritage museum, pitching in at a Habitat for Humanity house-raising, and making kid-sized Muskoka chairs for sale to cover some of their costs. From their launch in October of 2018 to May 2019, the group grew from 20 to 30. “Every week, somebody walks in, and we’ve never had anyone not come back,” Farley says.
In Mississippi Mills, Naismith Men’s Shed members divide their time between a shed owned by a conservation authority (where they volunteer their time), a restaurant, and a privately owned, fully kitted-out woodworking shop—in return for paying the running costs, they get custodianship and use of the premises and tools. Among other projects, they’ve built bat-house nurseries for the Canadian Wildlife Federation, assembled bluebird house kits for a young field naturalists’ group, and built a raised garden bed for growing tomatoes and herbs next to the community wood-fired pizza oven in Almonte, ON. Members not interested in woodworking can participate in other ways—by, for example, helping organize activities such as a partners-welcome day trip to see lady’s slipper orchids blooming in the Purdon Conservation Area, followed by lunch and a tour at a combination pancake house/sugar camp/chainsaw museum.
The Vanderhoof (BC) Men’s Shed society, on the other hand, assists those who need wheelchair ramps, help with downsizing or improving their homes, or help with moving. Thanks to several successful grant applications, the society was able to purchase a cargo trailer, renovate their shed’s kitchen, and build a swim platform for a children’s summer camp, in addition to other projects. The group covers rent with a combination of income from the sale of repaired and refurbished goods that would otherwise have been sent to the landfill, and uses two pellet stoves—fed with fuel donated by local mills—to help the landlord with heating costs.
Dues and rules about who can join vary from one group to another, too. For instance, at the Naismith Shed, which is open to anyone professing to be of the male gender, dues are just a dollar a year (at meetings, there’s also a jam jar on the table for donations), while anyone interested in men’s health can join the Coquitlam Men’s Shed, where members pay $20 annually. Individual sheds don’t have to join a national or provincial association, though in British Columbia, for example, a $100 group membership in the Men’s Sheds Association of British Columbia comes with $5 million of liability coverage that might otherwise cost 10 times that.
“Men’s Sheds are not like a Lions Club or anything like that,” Dave Steventon explains. “There’s no pre-ordained structure to maintain the model of the group nationally and internationally. Each Men’s Shed meets the needs of the local guys.” And unlike many other organizations, sheds have a collaborative, rather than hierarchical, structure.
So what do men get out of joining a shed?
Between November 2017 and June 2018, the UK Men’s Sheds Association conducted a survey of its estimated 11,000 Shedders; 75 per cent reported a reduction in feelings of anxiety and 89 per cent reported a decrease in depression as a direct result of regular participation in the group.
“I generally tell people you can think of a Men’s Shed at three levels,” Mike Jennings says. “The first is just a workshop. If you want to come in and work on your own project, you’re welcome.”
Level Two involves having a reason to get out of the house, along with the camaraderie that develops through simply getting together and working together regularly.
“It’s like having a job but not having a job,” the University of British Columbia’s John Oliffe says. “You have the routine and purpose, but you don’t have the pressure of showing up every day.”
“It gives a guy a reason to get out of bed in the morning and face a new day with optimism and expectations,” Dave Steventon says. The friendships that naturally evolve form part of that sense of meaning and responsibility. For instance, if one of the members of the Naismith Men’s Shed misses a few meetings, someone will reach out, without prying, to see if he’s okay. And, as previously explained, friendship, strong social connections, and a sense of purpose have all been shown to promote mental and physical health, and may be especially helpful during times of transition, such as retirement, divorce, bereavement, and even maintaining newly achieved recovery from a substance-use problem. For some, those effects can be transformative: Jennings cites the example of a fellow member who, since joining, has cut back on drinking and slimmed down considerably.
“The third level is what we try to give back to the community,” Jennings says. Not only does giving back generate positive feelings of accomplishment, productivity, and self-worth, but it often broadens members’ social circles even more. For instance, “there are quite a few children around this development,” Jennings says, “and it brings a great deal of joy to us when they give us a hand at doing the jobs.” And while it’s not the primary reason Men’s Shed members do so, there’s substantial evidence that volunteering for a cause that’s personally meaningful has a host of benefits, including protective effects on overall health and cognitive function.
Bill Farley, Mike Jennings, and Dave Steventon make it very clear that they feel their own lives and those of their brother members have been immeasurably improved by their involvement in Men’s Sheds.
“It’s been a lifesaver for me—the only thing I can say is it’s absolutely magic,” Jennings says.
And as for the empty, is-this-all-there-is feeling Steventon described experiencing, “there’s a darned sight more to life, and we can show you what it is and help you enjoy the rest of your days,” he says. “I think it’s very important, what we do. It’s a passion,” he says, his voice betraying his emotion, “as you can tell.”