On Valentine’s Day, 2011, Noel Findley’s heart was racing as he walked up the path towards a large, non-descript shed, in Cessnock, NSW.
Having been forced into early retirement as a boilermaker due to health problems, Findley had spent most of the past six years staying at home, battling depression.
“I would be sitting in the lounge and I’d just start crying,” Findley said. “It seemed that the weight of the world was on my shoulders.”
He had tried to hide his true feelings from his wife. “I put on a mask,” Findley said. “I didn’t want to drag her down with me.”
Findley, who was 63 at the time, sorely missed the mateship and banter that came with his former work at the local council. He had no close friends, and no-one apart from his wife to talk to.
Since that day at the Cessnock Men’s Shed things have changed for the better. “When I went into the shed someone came up to me and said, ‘Do you want to do something?’” Findley said. “They needed a guard for a fan belt so I grabbed some steel and welded one together. And they said, ‘Oh, that was quick’, and that’s when I knew this place was for me.”
In 2010, as part of the Australian Government’s first ever national male health policy, $3 million was granted to the Australian Men’s Shed Association (AMSA) in recognition of the fact that “Men’s sheds play an important role in the community by providing meeting places where men can find support and camaraderie”. The policy went on to state that men’s sheds were “a way of establishing friendships and social networks, and engaging in purposeful activity.”
The AMSA was formed in 2007, combining a number of sheds that had spontaneously arisen throughout the country. The concept has proved so popular that chapters have sprung up in the UK, Ireland, New Zealand, Canada and the USA. One of the objectives of the association is to promote men’s health programs in a way that is best summarised by the AMSA’s official motto: “Men don’t talk face to face, they talk shoulder to shoulder”.
“Years ago the theory was that you get a dozen men in a room with a facilitator and sit them down and say, ‘Okay, let’s all talk about our problems’,” AMSA’s chief executive David Helmers said. “Now you can imagine, a dozen burly blokes in that scenario, it just doesn’t work. But the way the men’s shed works is if you take those same dozen blokes but replace the facilitator with a broken lawnmower, give them some tools, and say, ‘Fix this lawnmower’, then if you come back in a few hours they would have discussed all their problems and having a very open conversation. Perhaps the lawnmower still won’t work, but it was irrelevant in the first place.”
During Helmers’ long association with the Men’s Shed movement, he has seen the AMSA grow from around 50 sheds to more than 980 sheds in Australia today. “There are more men’s sheds than there are McDonald’s,” he said. “I would estimate that up to a quarter of a million blokes in Australia attend men’s sheds in some capacity.”
Although men of all ages are welcome to attend, the vast majority are in the post-retirement demographic. “With men a lot of their social life revolves around the workplace,” Helmers said. “But once that culture is removed you’re leaving a lot of people at high risk of social isolation.”
Although they are the largest, the AMSA is not the only organisation that runs post-retirement focussed men’s community groups.
Ian McDougall, of Southport, Queensland, encouraged his father, Ronald McDougall, to join a men’s shed when he noticed that his father, who was 77 at the time, was becoming depressed. “But the shed didn’t really suit him,” McDougall said. “He wasn’t a woodworker and with hearing loss found communication and engagement difficult in that environment.”
This inspired McDougall to come up with an alternative. “I called my idea ‘Blokes Lounge’ and envisioned a house or someplace where men could meet in an informal environment and come and go as they pleased,” he said.
McDougall floated his idea on local media and in October 2012, seven men formed a “Blokes Lounge”, who in the early days met in the Broadbeach Library. Since then the group has steadily grown and it now boasts 74 members who meet fortnightly at the Surfers Paradise Golf Club.
As well as the meetings, the group runs activities that members can enjoy together such as cycling, card playing, golf and barbecues.
Rollo Meyers, 80, a retired dentist, says being part of Blokes Lounge gives him a sense of self-worth and friendship. “Our members come from all different walks of life,” he said. “The diversity in Blokes Lounge is so disparate to any other organisation I’ve ever been in.”
He agrees with McDougall that men need their own groups to belong to. “Women often like different things to men, like my wife has her girlfriends and she likes touring and shopping whereas in general men like a bit more action and adventure, so when we get home at night time we’ve got different things to talk about,” he said.
Meyers believes the most significant aspect of the group is the fellowship that men gain. “That’s very important to the guys because they can talk with other men about personal matters, things they wouldn’t necessarily discuss with other people,” he said.
As for Findley, he remains happy with the Cessnock Men’s Shed, and believes that men’s groups like these are invaluable. “It made me realise I’m not worthless,” Findley said.
He wants other men to know that the benefits of belonging to a group far outweigh any shyness about joining. “Just do it,” he said. “Once you get over that initial contact, you will find that the blokes are really accepting.”
- MensLine Australia offers telephone and online support, information and referrals for men dealing with mental health and relationship concerns.
- Read about adjusting to retirement, here.
- If you or anyone you know needs help now, call Lifeline on 13 11 14
Suvi Mahonen is a Surfers Paradise-based journalist. Her work appears in The Australian, the Australian Quarterly, Mamamia and other health and lifestyle publications. Follow her on Facebook and online art-selling platform Redbubble.
Feature photo credit: Pexels from Pixabay