Stuart Dennis, 73, a retired textile importer, is a member of a shed in Cardinia, Australia, and said he has found close friends there. Photo for The Washington Post by Dawn Fallick

What to do about lonely older men? Put them to work

  • Jun. 24, 2018 4:50 p.m.

Glenn Sears returned to his native Honolulu seven years ago to retire, but living in a condo on the 35th floor with his “perfect wife of 58 years,” he didn’t meet many people, and many of his old friends had either moved to the mainland or died. The 83-year-old former civil engineering professor was bored and lonely.

Then he read about an international program called Men’s Sheds. It is sort of like a Boy Scouts for adults, a place where men can learn new skills and work together on community projects: building park benches, making toys for children’s hospitals or volunteering at food drives.

In 2015, he started to put together a group in Honolulu, advertising in local community centers and on Craigslist. A friend offered him the use of a vacant warehouse – if he could cart away a 28-ton concrete pile. Sixty volunteers showed up with tools and jackhammers.

Now they use the space to fix up outrigger canoes, offer power equipment training and repair abandoned bikes. And Sears has plenty of new friends and a new mission: opening two more Men’s Sheds groups on Oahu and hoping to start more on other islands.

“People are lonely, and they’re looking for something to do and to make friends, and that’s exactly what this provides,” Sears said.

Men’s Sheds started in Australia in 1995 and is now expanding in the United States, with groups in nine states. The goal of the program is to give men, usually of retirement age, a place to go, something to do and people to chat with, said Barry Golding, author of “The Men’s Shed Movement: The Company of Men.”

The idea, named after the backyard space where many men keep their workspace and tools, emerged after a public health conference on men’s health, Golding said. One of the big issues for men is social isolation, which affects both mental and physical health, particularly in retirement, said Charlotte S. Yeh, the chief medical officer for AARP.

“With men, they often identify with their job, and when they retire they think they are going to keep the same friends they’ve had in the workplace, but then they find they no longer share the same interests,” she said. “Then they depend on their spouses to develop networks, but they may not have spouses, or that may not work out.” (That is, not all people automatically make friends with their spouse’s friends.)

Loneliness isn’t just a emotional state of feeling disconnected. More and more, researchers believe that loneliness has an impact not only on mental health, but physical well-being.

People who feel lonely and are socially isolated were up to 32 percent more likely to die early, according to a 2015 meta-analysis.

A 2017 study published in the Lancet Public Health looked at 466,901 British men and women and found that loneliness was associated with a 58 percent higher risk of death in men, compared with a 34 percent increase in women. Feeling socially isolated – having little contact with others – had a stronger link to mortality than loneliness, which is more of an emotional state of feeling disconnected, the authors said.

The struggle with loneliness is an issue globally. Britain recently appointed a government position to address the problem, and in the United States, former surgeon general Vivek H. Murthy told The Washington Post last year that he believed loneliness to be at an “epidemic” level.

The Men’s Sheds movement has more than 1,000 groups around the world. Each group offers a gathering space where men, mainly of retirement age, can chat, but the main goal is to create connections and a sense of community, organizers said.

The motto is “shoulder to shoulder,” said Lindsay Oates, president of the Victorian Men’s Shed Association in Australia.

“Men feel more comfortable talking while they’re doing something side by side, whether it’s sitting at a bar or working on a project,” he said, something that has been explored in studies of gender difference in communication by Georgetown linguistics professor Deborah Tannen, who also wrote a book on the topic, “You Just Don’t Understand.”

“Here, you come in, everyone knows you, you can work on a project or have a cup of tea and chat, it’s all good,” Oates said.

Each group has its own space, hours and membership fees. (One shed charges $20 a year to belong, another $85.) No one is required to take part in the activities. It’s perfectly OK to show up for a chat and a cup of tea or coffee and a game of pool, and many members do just that, said shed organizers in the United States, Australia and Britain.

In Australia, the government helps fund sheds with small grants, but some do additional fundraising through barbecues, selling their work at shows and taking individual orders for such tasks as cutting firewood for seniors, making ukuleles and, in one case, creating bow-tie display boxes for a local store.

Reg Flanigan’s shed, tucked away in an underground parking garage in downtown Melbourne, makes “boomerang bags,” or reusable grocery bags. The 74-year-old retired airline pilot joined the group after his wife died and he found himself sitting at home alone – a lot. He would visit his children and seven grandchildren, most of whom live locally, but he didn’t have a strong group of friends or a regular hangout.

Then he saw a television ad for the Men’s Sheds program and started going a couple of days a week, learning how to use the wood tools, and said it has made a huge difference in his life.

“I come here, I chat with people, and I feel like I accomplish something,” said Flanigan as he worked on a lathe, creating a football-shaped trophy for a friend. “I was nervous at first, but people were really welcoming, and now I come at least once a week.”

Members often come with metal- or woodworking skills and share those with others. Some people just show up to chat and play pool, say shed organizers in Australia and Great Britain.

Joe Holasek, 75, who belongs to a shed near Minneapolis, said he joined after seeing a flier in a local community center. After retiring at age 70 from Honeywell as a manager, he had time on his hands, even with a family and three grandchildren. “You retire, you don’t feel like stopping completely and you want to do stuff with other people, and it’s good to get together and get out of the house,” he said.

Although Men’s Sheds focus on retired men, some welcome younger ones, and several include women.

Anthony Bright, 47, said he started the Melbourne shed in 2013 after being turned down from other sheds for being too young. Although he was married and working as a nutrition counselor, he didn’t have a group of friends to hang out with, and he liked the idea of creating a community where all men were welcome. The youngest member of the group now is around 30, he said.

“After I started it, I was here for 26 weeks by myself, thinking this was a nightmare,” said Bright. “Then men started turning up, and we added a cooking program and night hours, and it’s taken off.” He said there are now about 70 members

For Sears, in Honolulu, the sheds are more than just a place to take a class or find something to do. He said many men are lonely and don’t know where to find friends, particularly once they leave work.

“People are so depressed and they’re sitting home and watching TV, and then they find they belong somewhere,” he said. “It’s really saved lives.”

Dawn Fallik is a professor at the University of Delaware/Special to The Washington Post

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