Across the English speaking world, men are learning that the easiest way to cure a bout of social isolation is not by talking face to face, but shoulder to shoulder.When Phillip Jackson moved back to England from Australia, he was 67, and immediately felt like a stray dog in his native town of Barnsley.
Realizing many of those in town at his age had their own problems with social isolation, he launched a Barnsley UK chapter of an Australian community building movement called “Men’s Shed,” which has expanded across the anglophone world, and included more than 50,000 men.
Capitalizing on most men’s (and women’s) appreciation of woodworking, a Men’s Shed is essentially a collective support group for men with not enough friends or too much time on their hands. The original concept was to get together and make things out of wood, but in reality its about plugging into the social fabric of a community, whether that’s through meeting up for a coffee, building a park bench, or listening the problems someone is going through in their marriage.
“It’s like the shed at the bottom of your garden,” Jackson told The Guardian. “but all your friends are there. It’s a break from people’s weekly routines. It gets them out and talking to similar people.”
In 2005, there were an estimated 200 Men’s Sheds operating in Australia. Today the Australian Men’s Shed Association has a membership base of over 1,200 Men’s Sheds.
It’s become a big part of Australia’s mental health outpatient options, with the recent round of fundraising managing to secure 153 Men’s Shed chapters AUD$10,000 from the Ministry for Health and Aged Care.
“We have this kind of male pride thing,” said Mike Jenn, 70, and a member of a United States Men’s Shed. “‘I can look after myself. I don’t need to talk to anyone,’ and it’s a complete fallacy. Not communicating helps to kill us.”
There are 17 U.S. Men’s Sheds, including one in Hawai’i. They are springing up in Canada as well, and surging in number around the UK.
“It’s not really a woodworking shop. It’s a community enterprise where people with problems can come and discuss them with friends,” said Jackson.
The age range of “Shedders” as Jackson calls them, tends to vary from 22 through to 87, which makes sense because anyone can feel lonely at times. He adds that the members come from all walks of life—ex-coalminers to shopkeepers.
Not only can Men’s and Women’s Sheds be a great place for learning and laughing, they can literally save lives, as loneliness has been shown to shave years off of one’s life, elderly or young.
For Americans who feel a woodworking/support group would be welcomed in their own community, the U.S. Men’s Shed Association has plenty of resources for those looking to start their own shed, including step by step process for getting 501(c)3 non-profit status, applying for grants from healthcare and other funding sources to launch a program, and even ideas for how to plan your first meeting.