Flickr Creative Commons: Tord Sollie

What if instead of potting soil and lawn mowers you filled a shed with hot coffee, cribbage boards and friends? That’s the idea behind Men’s Sheds, a non-profit program that brings men together to enjoy activities, socialize and forge bonds with their communities. The concept, which started in Australia, was brought to Canada by Doug Mackie, a retired financial planner who launched the first one in Winnipeg, MB.

Mackie says he got the idea for Men’s Sheds from his daughter who had heard about the group from an Australian acquaintance. “My daughter said, ‘Dad, you’re 67 years old and you have so much energy. I think you should start one.’ So, I did,” says Mackie.

In 2010, after various starts and stops, the Woodhaven Men Shed was born. Today, there’s a regular bunch of about 30 men – ranging in ages from 27 to 87 – who gather twice a week at a community centre to do woodcarving, play games, listen to guest speakers or just share stories.

Male friendships unfold differently than women’s

According to Mackie, what makes Men’s Sheds so special is that they’re a grassroots organization run by men, with the needs of men in mind. “Sure, there are other community centres and groups around town where mature adults can gather, but men need a different kind of place. They don’t want to be told to do specific activities or be forced to talk. They’re not the type just to sit and chat.”

Doug Mackie brought the Men Sheds concept to Canada.

Mackie believes that the lack of a prescribed agenda, the variety of activities and the laidback, accepting atmosphere of Men’s Sheds leads to successful socialization: “Men are different than women. They don’t communicate face to face. Men are more hands on. They talk when they’re doing something. At first, a room will be silent as men go about their carving or whatever. Suddenly two men are talking, then a few minutes later another two are chatting. Soon there’s a hum of conversation going on.”

Certainly, the speed with which Men’s Sheds are starting to sprout up across Canada since Mackie first started his Woodhaven branch, attests to their value for communities. There are now more than 15 Men’s Sheds associations across the country and in excess of 2,000 worldwide.

Easing isolation and improving connectivity

Men’s Sheds play an invaluable role to help ease the isolation and depression that can often occur as adults get older and lose touch with friends. According to a study by Statistics Canada, meaningful socialization is an integral part of healthy aging. Its report states that social activities may be particularly important for older adults who can benefit the reduced risk of mortality, disability and depression, and better cognitive health they offer. Social engagement – involvement in meaningful activities and maintaining close relationships – is a key component of successful aging.

Mackie, who says he had few close friends before starting the Woodhaven Men’s Shed, has met some of his closest companions through the organization. “What makes Men’s Sheds so important is that they allow for the way we men get to know one another,” he notes. “I think men have a harder time making friends than women do. We talk more with gestures than words and define friendship in different ways.”

Friendships among men flourish at community sheds across Canada.

Mackie also notes that men of all backgrounds and abilities are welcomed by the organization. He describes how the group even receives referrals from the Winnipeg Regional Health Stroke Recovery Team and the Parkinson society. “Men know they will be accepted here,” he says.

The program’s reach goes beyond socialization between men. It also reaches out to the community at large. “We are not just men,” insists Mackie. “We are teachers and mentors who want to help out our communities.”

For example, another Men’s Shed organization in Minnedosa, MB, built an ornamental bridge for their town park and planters for a senior’s centre. Another branch constructed special ramps for an equestrian school so kids with disabilities could get onto the horses. Last summer, the Woodhaven group volunteered to make picnic tables for a local children’s camp.

Mackie insists that groups like Men’s Sheds are an integral part of any age-friendly society and that their existence benefits everyone. “Community workers, wives, daughters, grand-daughters… They might see the health of their dad or a friend declining while their field of friends narrow. Or maybe they know someone with early-onset Alzheimer’s. They know they can bring those men here. We will enfold them, look after them and keep them involved. We are here to help hold families and communities together.”

To read more about Men’s Sheds or learn how to start your own in your city, check out the Men’s Sheds Canadian website, which offers a toolkit for men wanting to start their own organization.