Shedding inhibitions

Sheds are increasingly being used to give men a chance to come to terms with retirement, overcome loneliness and talk about the things that matter. By Gary Ryan

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“What are we doing with the soil?” asks 83-year-old Frank, pushing a wheelbarrow while diligently avoiding the timber and other assorted wood dotted around. On a community garden next to the old St Barnabas Church in Openshaw, Manchester, banter is flying thick and fast. Surveying the empty raised vegetable bed he’s just broken down, Paul, 69, responds: “Quick, get the mother-in-law – we’ll bury her.”

This is one of the 232 Men’s Sheds throughout the UK, an innovative social initiative where typically older men gather, share skills and stave off loneliness while working on a project. Common activities include basic woodwork, gardening and bicycle repair. Today, the Openshaw shedonists – all aged over 50 – are demolishing and reassembling the raised beds used to grow food, so they can embark on extending the “glory hole” – the workshop where they construct the likes of benches and birdhouses out of donated wood. It’s an ambitious task, but they count retired joiners, construction managers and builders among their number.

As the seven chaps – Shed Seven you could call them – debate the best way to negotiate the task at hand, the effect is akin to Dad’s Army meets DIY SOS, but it’s all serving a bigger purpose: tackling isolation among the elderly. You wouldn’t guess it from the camaraderie, laughs and friendly fire of punchlines today, but some of these men were desperately lonely, until they started drilling and hammering, building and bonding.

Men are less inclined to discuss their feelings, especially challenging when half of all over-75s live alone, with half of over-65s considering the television as their main companion. No wonder one in 10 say they feel lonely.

Project leader Clive Hamilton says: “The activity is the link. Women talk face to face while men talk shoulder to shoulder – like they would have at work on a production line. What you see is guys who initially would have had a lack of confidence and are resistant about talking about an issue directly will just by default start talking about something because they’re working alongside somebody. The activity is the ice-breaker. We get people cracking jokes with each other, but equally we get people opening up about bereavement, loss, health issues and problems within their family.”

Rather than providing a refuge from the world, the Shed is about connecting with it

As the youngest member here today, 53-year-old Nick is one of 4,623 dedicated “shedders” in the UK. A former machine operator in a factory, he retired early due to back problems. “What tends to happen when you leave work is you close in and don’t socialise as much,” he laments. “I went into a shell – and this has helped my confidence. A year ago, I wouldn’t have had the courage to speak to you.”

Wielding a sledgehammer, Roy is the most recent recruit, having only started coming last week. He used to be a builder before suffering a stroke, and was told about Men’s Sheds by a nurse who visits him. “I come down for the social interaction,” admits the 65-year-old. “I come down to talk to people.”

Paul enthuses that Men’s Sheds has helped him adjust to life after a rupture and stroke. “It gets you out of the house,” says the 69 year old of his reason for being here. “I’ve got 49 per cent sight in both eyes. I try and watch television but I’m not very good at it – because if I try and watch football, they’re running up and down the pitch and I don’t know who’s got the ball.

“When you work every day of your life and you stop, you fall off the edge of a cliff. I’ve sat and cried my bollocks off at home, thinking: ‘Why did this happen to me?’ My wife is my carer now and I don’t want her to be – part of coming here is giving her some independence.”

Three years ago, this land was underused and a magnet for anti-social behaviour, until Hamilton and an enterprising posse of local gents decided to transform it. Out of that, a demand for a Men’s Shed group formed, which he facilitated. It launched officially last June to coincide with National Men’s Health Week. Now, every Wednesday between 10am and 2pm, they gather in almost the opposite of the traditional idea of a shed: rather than providing a refuge from the outside world, it’s about connecting with it. Some of the projects they make, such as garden benches, are sold off, with any profit ploughed back into the group; others have won awards, notably an edible bus stop, which won a silver gilt show garden award at Dig The City in 2014.

“We’ve seen people actually go on and get work,” notes Hamilton. “People who have been told recently that the skills they have are no longer valued – they’ve lost their job or are marginalised by society in some way – to have somebody buy something they’ve made or to win an award is a powerful way to build up somebody’s confidence.”

Men in sheds Big Issue North

Men’s Sheds started in Australia in 2006 to provide support to men who have experienced mental health issues, problems with the transition to retirement or a lack of social interaction. The first sheds in the UK were established by Age Concern in 2009. In 2011, Mike Jenn, chair of the UK Men’s Sheds Association, set up (work)shop in Camden.

“I don’t have space for a shed of my own and nor would many other older men – especially if they’ve had to downsize,” says Jenn. “Sheds mainly appeal to retired men who might need a workspace, more or better tools, or advice on techniques, although the main benefits are more likely to be more friends, more activity, and more purpose in their life. Talking, learning, achieving and keeping active are all known to improve health.”

He has seen many transformations among his members. “The biggest change I noticed was a guy who’d had a stroke. His motor skills improved week on week as did his ability to talk clearly. I felt like he was repairing his brain with his hands.”

In Dukinfield, Tameside, the Shed is buzzing noisily to the sound of a cross-cutter as Tony, 77, prepares to construct planters. Plumes of sawdust fill the air. Here, they make the likes of garden gates, insect hotels and eggcup holders with their grandchildren’s name pyrographed on for Easter, and produce honey from their own beehives – sold to local churches. Tony first arrived here to cope with solitude after his wife passed away following a prolonged illness. “I couldn’t stick just being stuck indoors watching the bloody television,” he says. “If you sit and vegetate in a chair, you’re finished.”

Twelve years ago, he retired from engineering. “It’s amazing what you miss,” he sighs. “The jokes. The camaraderie. The insults.”

Although one-third of Men’s Sheds admit women, it’s at their individual discretion. When you think of “men-only clubs”, you either imagine musty anachronisms such as private members joint the Garrick in London, fending off modernity, or Police Academy’s leather-clad Blue Oyster Bar. But group organiser Bob, a 68-year old ex-furniture technician, feels there are considerable benefits to being an old boys club.

“I know it sounds sexist, but it’s not – there are a lot of things for women, like the Women’s Institute and knitting groups, but there’s nothing like this for men. It’s somewhere to go for the banter. Men behave differently when they’re just with men. The language is calmed down when a woman is around, yet when it’s just men, insults fly – and that’s how they bond and open up.”

Depression is a major problem among men, with the suicide rate of males over 55 having risen by 12 per cent in the last decade. Jenn notes that part of this may be due to men coping less well with retirement than women.

“Women tend to have more social networks outside of the workplace, which helps when you are cut off from your work contacts,” he says. “Also women are more ready to join in social activities, to talk about how they feel and are not afraid to be open about the difficulties they are facing. I think men are conditioned by genetics and experience to believe they can look after themselves.”

Twelve months ago, Eddie’s wife died and, at 87, he’s facing the prospect of rebuilding his life. His son brings him down twice a week. He says the group has offered him a compass in a wilderness of loss. “Here at least I’m not talking to myself all the time. When you’re on your own, you feel forgotten. It’s helped my confidence. I had been coming six months before I had enough confidence to talk to people – but I want to get back to how I was before. It helps that we’ve all got the same problems – there’s somebody who will have been through what you’re going through.”

Among the Shed’s 50-strong membership, whose ages range from 50 to 98, are people with mental health problems and those who have suffered strokes. Like the majority of other Men’s Sheds, they work closely with charities. Tony says: “It’s for all abilities so we have some people with early onset dementia, some people who can only use one hand – we make them do a bit of painting or sanding. We’ve got a few people in wheelchairs who come down to talk about the good old days.”

While the humble shed is a sanctuary to some – a place to pot plants, mend lawnmowers or have time to yourself – it’s often the place where we hide things we’d rather not see. Does the same “out of sight, out of mind” ethos apply to how we treat old people in general in this country?

“Older people are a valuable resource but are often disregarded,” says Jenn. As practical skills become more sidelined – last year, Homebase closed a quarter of its outlets, blaming “a less-skilled generation” – the Men’s Sheds movement has found a way to harness decades of experience.

“A lot of us are ex-engineers,” says Bob. “We have an 80-something called Ivor who used to be a senior technician at the Manchester Velodrome. Nowadays, people bring us old bikes they’re throwing away – he’ll do them up and we try and sell them for between £20-£30.”

“Losing your purpose after retirement is something everybody faces sooner or later,” says Tony. “This is our novel way of dealing with it.”

Main photo left to right: Jamie, Paul, Nick, project leader Clive and Frank at their site in Openshaw, Manchester. Photos by Rebecca Lupton

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