It’s no secret that many older men face serious challenges when it comes to healthy social connections. Traditionally, women often maintain a family’s social connections. If a man loses his wife through death or divorce, then staying connected can become a serious challenge. In the United States and the United Kingdom, nearly 1 in 3 people who are older than 65 live alone; and in the United States, half of those who are over 85 live by themselves.
Loneliness has become problematic for seniors, and a variety of researchers have discovered that feeling isolated can have almost twice the impact as obesity on early death. According to John T. Cacioppo, co-author of “Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection,” the ache of loneliness can be equivalent to physical pain.
Cacioppo has written that the increasing number of baby boomers who are facing retirement has created what he calls a “silver tsunami.” And the more challenging issue for senior males is feeling isolated, especially those who spent decades interacting with colleagues and co-workers on a daily basis. He urges retirees—male and female—to stay in touch with their former co-workers and make it a priority to interact with friends and family members.
In the UK, the impact of loneliness on health had become such a source of concern that the UK Department of Health helped sponsor The Campaign to End Loneliness. Here in the United States, we have AARP, while on the other side of the Atlantic, Age UK has initiated a variety of programs designed to alleviate isolation among seniors. In London, a charity called Open Age sponsors more than 380 activities each week, including book clubs, computer classes, current events discussion groups, and exercise.
But one of the best anti-loneliness innovations is the Men’s Sheds organization, which focuses on bringing older males together in a casual environment. It began in Australia in 1998 with the idea to replicate the feeling of a backyard shed, a traditional environment in which men would carry out various tasks, such as restoring furniture, fixing lawn mowers, or other basic chores. The theory behind the movement was that social interaction, recreational activities, and casual learning opportunities would reduce depression and feelings of isolation.
There are now more than 300 Men’s Sheds scattered throughout the United Kingdom. Woodwork seems to be the most popular activity, and the groups never have to worry about supplies because many widows donate their late husbands’ tools, happy knowing that they will be put to good use rather than gather dust.
One interesting aspect of the Men’s Sheds movement is that observers have discovered that women prefer to interact face-to-face, and men prefer to interact shoulder-to-shoulder. Spending time at a workbench or at desks placed next to one another provides this opportunity. Women enjoy direct interaction, men enjoying doing things together.
Keith Pearshouse, a retired school principal in his 70s, moved from Norfolk, England, to London in 2007. He recognized that he was lonely and decided to visit the nearest Men’s Shed, a 700-square-foot workshop in a local community center. He has since made new informal friendships and begun crafting small wooden objects, even though he has never worked with wood before.
Mike Jenn, also in his 70s, runs the Camden Town district shed in London and is also the chair of the UK Men’s Sheds Association. A retired charity worker, Jenn told The New York Times: “We say, ‘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.”
If there’s not a Men’s Shed where you live, perhaps this is the perfect time to think about starting one. After all, loneliness can be fatal, and friendships—even those that are casual, new and unstructured—can heal.
Marilyn Murray Willison has had a varied career as a six-time nonfiction author, columnist, motivational speaker, and journalist in both the UK. and the U.S. She is the author of “The Self-Empowered Woman” blog and the award-winning memoir “One Woman, Four Decades, Eight Wishes.” She can be reached at MarilynWillison.com. To find out more about Marilyn and read her past columns, please visit the Creators Syndicate webpage at Creators.com. Copyright 2020 Creators.com