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How garden shed helps older people to stave off loneliness

A wooden garden shed sits rather incongruously within a large refurbished barn in a farmyard in Kinghorn, Fife.

SUPPORT: Tool shedders Bill Ashcroft, Pat Convery, Fred Varney and Bob Smith feel the project helps to keep them busy. Picture: Gordon Terris
SUPPORT: Tool shedders Bill Ashcroft, Pat Convery, Fred Varney and Bob Smith feel the project helps to keep them busy. Picture: Gordon Terris

Inside the snug hut, the constant rasp of steel on steel and rhythmic scraping acts as a background hum as four pensioners in the narrow and well-ordered space remove paint and rust from a selection of tools, restoring them to their former utility. And above the scraping, there is an ongoing easy chatter about a recent court case, last night's television and, of course, the World Cup.

Despite the presence of retired primary schoolteacher Pat Convery, this is called a Men's Shed, an idea which originated in Australia eight years ago to bring older men together communally to take part in activities with the aim of staving off loneliness as well as giving the participants a purpose in their life. There are now more than 1,000 sheds there, representing an estimated 175,000 individuals.

The tools this group are refurbishing in Scotland will end up in specially built wooden crates to be shipped to Africa, where they will help locals in Malawi and Tanzania become self-sufficient. Behind the shed, boxes full of restored hand drills, pincers, saws, planes and hammers are testament to the work put in by the group, perhaps as far removed from the traditional image of pensioners sitting vacantly in a day centre as possible.

Retired Planning Officer Bill Ashcroft says the old tools they are repairing are more popular in Africa than newly manufactured tools as the quality of steel is better and can be resharpened again and again; he smiles when he considers whether this could be an analogy to the hard working team he is a part of: "That's true, we look soft but we work hard."

Mr Ashcroft enjoys the camaraderie of the shed, whose users' ages range from 55 up to their mid-seventies, and wishes there had been something similar available when he stopped working five years ago: "It takes two years to adjust to not working but I didn't discover this until I was two years retired. Something like this could ease you into your new life."

He adds: "Meeting people, talking to people, filling in your time, doing something useful; boredom is the old age pensioners bane."

The work may seem mundane, even monotonous but the group of up to eight unpaid workers return week after week through winter and summer. Mrs Convery explains: "It's not really like work; if we were told we had to fix six spades and eight forks by next week, we would tell them to get lost, but there is no pressure here like in teaching where you felt you could never do enough work.

"The work in itself is satisfying, it's about being useful."

Self-professed new boy Bob Smith, who has only been coming for a few months, researched Australian Men's Sheds online only to discover there was one 12 miles from his home in Leslie, Fife. The former quantity surveyor admits he hadn't thought about what he would be doing once he had retired but the shed has helped him cope with loneliness. Mr Smith, who lives alone, said:"If you're on your own working away in the garden, you might not speak to someone all day.

"There's only so much gardening you can do and once you've got the garden up to a certain level, a bit of weeding doesn't keep you that busy. Once I had done that and all the things I needed to do for the house, I came across this place."

He jokes: "And coming here keeps me out of the pub."

Retired builder Fred Varney agrees it is essential to keep busy: "I've been working on the building sites all my days so I wouldn't want to sit in the house and watch Jeremy Kyle."

Mr Varney adds it is important that the work they do has some purpose, which he had evidence of when he recognised a distinctive red tool he worked on being used by a disabled carpentry trainee in Nkhotakota, Malawi in a film clip: "The boy was using a spoke shave I had fixed and that was a brilliant feeling."

The space in Kinghorn is one of 11 already running across Scotland from Dumfries to Inverness, supported by Age Scotland with a further 11 in the process of being established and 11 again at the planning stage. Kinghorn may be unique in that it is actually housed in a shed, with factory buildings, portable buildings and even part of the Aviva insurance office in Dundee's Technology Park being used. The range of activities which occurs in each establishment is also wide as each group decides what they would like to do in their own shed. The members are also able to help each other with the peculiar trials that come with old age; from being told what to expect after a heart bypass operation to being given advice about carrying spare hearing aid batteries.

However, the health benefits to the men who join in the company of the sheds are far greater than gaining little pieces of advice. Professor Debbie Tolson, Alzheimer Scotland Professor of Dementia at the University of the West of Scotland, says there is a lot of evidence which shows that social isolation and loneliness is bad for your health and sense of well-being, with loneliness in particular associated with low mood which can lead to depression, high blood pressure, cardiovascular problems and an increased chance of dying.

She adds: "Some analysts have said if we can address social isolation, we can have a greater impact on an older person's health than many of our public health priorities. If you are lonely, not only are you likely to have that negative reaction, you are more likely to engage in things which aren't good for you; smoking, alcohol, inactivity and so on.

"Generally speaking, loneliness matters."

She adds that the meaningful activity taking place in the sheds can help reduce the risk of dementia and the effects of the condition: "What I think is important about the Men's Shed project is it has the opportunity to give to men a space where they are motivated to go and enjoy companionship, where they get peer support and where they actually feel they have a reason for going to do something they enjoy while having a shared identity with the men in the shed.

"So they feel they belong and are doing something purposeful, and I think that is really important."

Age Scotland became aware of the social impact Men's Sheds had made in Australia and Ireland and realised it would be an ideal way of tailoring support for older people aimed at men. Chief Executive Brian Sloan said: "Age Scotland supports hundreds of local older people's groups right across Scotland, but we have seen that men are often under-represented in many of them, which is why we've embraced this movement."

The charity's community development team identifies and supports emerging Men's Sheds, providing them with expertise while building links with established groups.

Mr Sloan said: "The enthusiasm is there, with many interested groups, but it can be hard to get from the point of being a collection of men interested in having a Men's Shed, to having one up and running.

"Premises are a big issue. Some groups have been lucky to get access to council-owned premises that weren't being used, but for others it's a bit more of a struggle.

"But where sheds are already up and running, the scope and diversity is great to see, and whatever activities the groups are involved in through their shed, the feedback is fantastic in terms of just keeping men active and socially engaged in their community."

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Home and Garden

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