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Interview: Men’s Shed Program Fosters Comradeship and Learning

 

Sheds are popping up all over the world as older men search for a space that feels right for them. No ordinary huts, these sheds comprise a community program that originated in south Australia in 1998. "Men’s Sheds" is now taking root across Canada.

Dr. Corey Mackenzie and colleagues at the University of Manitoba recently examined the involvement of a small group of men, aged 61 to 87, in Men’s Sheds. The findings, published in the March 2015 issue of Ageing & Society, underscore the tremendous potential of such grassroots programs to reinvigorate men’s lives and refocus their futures.

But how did the movement get started in Canada?

To find out, AHB caught up with Mr. Doug Mackie, founder of MenSheds Manitoba at the Woodhaven Community Club in Winnipeg.

Ruth Dempsey: What sparked your interest in the Men’s Sheds program?

Doug Mackie: In 2008, my daughter Lisa Koshinsky-Mackie learned about Men’s Sheds from an Australian woman at a conference. Lisa was intrigued, and she called and asked me to pull up an Australian site on Men’s Sheds.

I could see the possibilities. My daughter told me to start a shed here in Winnipeg. And I always do what my daughters tell me.

In one way or another, the Winnipeg shed has been in operation for the past six years. In December 2010, Mensheds Manitoba Inc was established as a nonprofit organization. And in January 2011, the Woodhaven Shed opened its doors.

RD: Can you describe how the shed works for me?

DM: Currently, there are 51 members. This is a volunteer grassroots group run by men for men. The organization has no operating grants. The Woodhaven Men’s Shed has free rent at the local community club.

Regular activities take place on Tuesday afternoons, and we meet Wednesday mornings for breakfast and also on Wednesday afternoons.

Occasionally, there is the Men’s Sheds Café, where members have been known to whip up a meal of Hungarian mushroom soup, bacon, macaroni avocado salad and crispy mustard roasted chicken.

Each spring, we sell tools that have been donated to the shed at a local garage sale and raise money for the group.

We also set up craft tables at various community events. And there can be opportunities to volunteer in the community.

Our weekly e-newsletter Keeping Busy, informs members of upcoming events. I send copies to health care workers, politicians, sheds in Australia and interested groups across Canada.

In addition, the Woodhaven Shed hosts "Tuesday Talks" by organizations, such as the:

  • Manitoba Prostate Society
  • Canadian Diabetes Association
  • Manitoba Cancer Society, and
  • Canadian Osteoporosis Society.

Friends and spouses are welcome. I think of these informal talks as "health by stealth." Men have an opportunity to explore health issues in a safe and comfortable setting.

RD: What do you think drew men to the shed, initially?

DM: Many wives, daughters and community health workers recognize the need for men to keep busy and hang out with other men to maintain their mental well-being.

When men retire, they leave behind a structured work environment and find they are underfoot at home. ("Why don’t you go out and do something!"). Friends are still working. There may be a loss of self esteem, and boredom and depression can set in.

Unfortunately, many men are reluctant to join a new group and make new friends. They tend to "suck it up." Men have the attitude, "I can handle this boredom, depression myself." Some men believe it un-masculine and a sign of weakness to seek help or even go to a doctor.

Sheds offer men a sense of camaraderie, a place to have a cup of coffee and socialize. There is no pressure if you miss a meeting or two, and there’s no need for constant fund raising.

Men engage in various activities, such as wood carving, bark carving, wood burning, making a diamond willow walking cane or stained glass work. Many sheds will have their own wood working shop.

RD: Retirees are looking for activities that will stretch them and give them a sense of accomplishment. Can you give me an example?

DM: Several come to mind.

"Bill," who makes many items at home, such as bird houses, obelisks and bird feeders, can now sell his goods at our craft table at the farmer’s market or the gardening show. This gives Bill an opportunity to retail his homemade goods, and it ramps up his visibility in the community.

"Stan," a widower, honed his cooking skills at the Men’s Shed Café. He eats healthier today and has hosted a dinner party for 15 people.

"Richard" has learned bark carving. He was reluctant, at first, to share his finished work, but he now shares it proudly with the other men. His spouse and daughter urged him to join the Woodhaven Men’s Shed.

And "Jon" made a beautiful Diamond Willow cane. He gave it to a man at church who needed a cane.

RD: Men’s Sheds are bottom up and participant-driven. Why is this important?

DM: Look at service clubs. To be a member, you are expected to volunteer, raise money, attend regularly and pay a membership fee. All top down activities. Many clubs are struggling to maintain their members.

Sheds offer men opportunities to do projects of their own choosing, in their own time. No one tells them what to do. They can participate in individual activities or join a group. They can learn new skills or act as a mentor, sharing their stories and wisdom.

My point is there is no pressure. Each shed is tailored to the local context. Men feel comfortable gathering informally and shaping their own shed and activities.

Over the past decade, Men’s Sheds have grown phenomenally. In Canada, the hot spot is British Columbia with a shed in Vanderhoof and another in Hope. Sheds are expected to open soon in Kelowna, Pemberton and White Rock.

Right now, there is interest in Men’s Sheds from communities across the country.

RD: Participants mentioned the lack of men’s programs . . .

DM: Yes, men find few opportunities in the community to connect with other guys and participate in meaningful activities.

The majority of senior centres offer a wide variety of activities for men and women. Female members out-number males by a wide margin: maybe 20 per cent men and 80 per cent women. Bottom line: men need spaces to hang out, where they can do things and have shoulder-to-shoulder relationships.

RD: Finally, close collaboration between the Woodhaven Shed and the University of Manitoba has bolstered support for the program . . .

DM: That’s right. In 2010, I discussed Men’s Sheds with Dr. Corey Mackenzie, a professor in the Department of Psychology and a research affiliate with the Centre on Aging at the University of Manitoba. That initial conversation sparked an ongoing collaborative relationship.

In fact, the present study represents the first research collaboration between the Woodhaven Shed and the University of Manitoba. The study was led by Kristin Reynolds, a PhD Candidate in Clinical Psychology at the University of Manitoba.

More recently, our shed has become a key community partner in a much larger research project funded by the Movember Canada foundation.

The $2.9 million grant from Movember is funding the Men’s Depression & Suicide Network. Led by Dr. John Oliffe and Dr. John Ogrodniczuk at the University of British Columbia, the network is exploring five projects aimed at addressing depression and suicide in men.

The University of Manitoba project will:

  • develop a toolkit to support groups of men who are interested in starting a shed 
     
  • create a national Canadian Men’s Sheds network website to help connect sheds across Canada 
     
  • provide information for individuals or groups who are interested in supporting men’s health and well-being, and 
     
  • ensure that the Canadian Men’s Sheds network is inclusive and welcoming of all men. 
     

This is very exciting.