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How men’s sheds are helping to tackle loneliness

For many years, a man’s shed has been his castle. That small wooden hut at the bottom of the garden has always been much more than just a workshop or a place hide pots and pans, it is a haven where a person can truly gather their thoughts.

But now the humble shed is taking on a much greater purpose. It is helping to tackle loneliness among older men (and women too), as well as help serve the local community.

Across the country, there are a growing number of ‘men’s sheds’ projects, which are helping older people engage in wide range of activities, from woodwork to building a car.

The UK Men’s Sheds Association’s ambassador programme manager, Clare Shelton, says there are around 450 such projects across the country, with about 100 a year currently opening.

‘The idea originally started in Australia in the late 1990s and early 2000s,’ she tells New Start. ‘It was a way of addressing problems with social isolation, particularly with older people.

‘Because the distances are so great in Australia, when men retired they tended to disappear from the community, as there were no reasons for them to come back into their villages.

‘They were started to address the lack of activity for men and to give them wellbeing messages, but the guys quickly took over and started doing other things.’

Ms Shelton says there are now more than 1,000 men’s sheds in Australia, which are ‘very well funded’ by the federal authorities.

‘Each government body has money to give to sheds setting up in their own area, because they can see the massive impact it has had over there.’

The charity Age UK set up a series of men’s sheds as part of a two-year pilot programme, which was funded by the Sir Jules Thorn Charitable Trust and ran from April 2010 – June 2012.

Since then, several other sheds have been set up by Age UK’s Cheshire and Cheshire East, Exeter and Stafford & District branches.

The UK Men’s Sheds Association works with other men’s sheds projects, which first started to appear in the UK in 2011.

‘The community-led sheds, which we support, are set up by groups of guys in their community who have either heard about the shed movement, or some have family in Australia and they have heard about them through them, so they have set the sheds up themselves,’ explains Ms Shelton.

‘It’s such a simple idea. It’s about getting together and doing something,’ she adds. ‘The focus is not on being lonely, isolated or needing help and support. It’s very pro-active and empowering for the people involved.

‘Every shed is different. We’ve got a boat shed in Dover, which has five people who meet once a week on a boat, have a cup of tea and talk about boats. We have other sheds that have 70-plus members.’

She adds there are quite a few men’s sheds in the South East, although not many in Cornwall or Devon. The Association has also produced an online map, so people can find their nearest shed.

‘Anyone can come along,’ adds Ms Shelton. ‘We know anecdotally there are people who go along to sheds who have become isolated for a number of reasons – bereavement, retired, moving to a new location – and going to a shed means they have someone to talk to and they have a purpose again.

‘But other people just like going along and chatting. They enjoy the camaraderie with other blokes.

‘And although we are the UK Men’s Sheds Association, we do leave it up for individual sheds to decide if they would like to have female members or not.

‘One of the reasons why sheds have taken off is there is not that much out there for older men,’ she adds. ‘You don’t suddenly reach the age of 65 and all of a sudden your life is about bingo or a cup of tea. There has to be that continuation of what sparked that person’s interest throughout their life and that’s what sheds give men and women.

‘What physically happens in the shed, whether it’s bicycle repairs or gardening, is almost secondary to the relationships that are built in the shed.

‘It’s about connecting back with the community. For sheds that do go out there and do community work, it’s about feeling useful and productive again. It’s also about raising awareness, once you retire you become invisible in your community, particularly to younger people. A lot of sheds are also doing inter-generational projects, because some younger people do not interact with older people.’

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