Shoulder to shoulder
We chat to the Australian Men’s Shed Association (AMSA) about the wellbeing benefits of community tinkering and why they’ve started a new men’s health program called ‘Spanner in the works?’
The notion that men and women are innately different in the way they socialise is not new. Commonly, women are buoyed and sustained by regular, informal catch-ups or chats on the phone with their girlfriends whilst men are often more prone to isolation because of their less spontaneous bonding style and preference for ‘doing’ practical activities or tasks rather than just talking.
Gary Green, Community Engagement Manager for Australian Men’s Shed Association, knows the distinction all too well. Once a community health nurse in regional Victoria, Gary initiated a Men’s Shed in Orbost in 2000 and is now an expert in engaging Aussie blokes in positive community activities. Each year he visits as many of the 950+ Men’s Sheds across Australia that he can, to deliver health messages, and has extensive experience working with men from diverse backgrounds including retirees, people with a disability, indigenous men, those embarking upon fatherhood and young men at risk.
“Women are great at maintaining friendships and need no excuse to organise a social event whereas men seem to often need a reason to gather together and, when they do, they want the situation to be meaningful,” Gary says.
“Men like the company of other men and for those who have retired from work, are unwell, unemployed, or home with kids, it can sometimes be hard.”
For those unfamiliar with the Men’s Shed phenomenon, it’s one which has gone from strength to strength in recent years. Each shed is a community-run space for local men of all ages to keep company whilst practising or learning shed-type skills. There is no expectation that members have prior knowledge of how to use the equipment and mentoring is a large part of the appeal.
“Lots of blokes who attend have had little or no past experience with tools and they might learn from other blokes or they might choose to suck on tea or coffee and solve the world’s problems or just help out the others,” Gary explains.
“Our motto is ‘men don’t talk face to face, they talk shoulder to shoulder’ and our sheds allow men to form and maintain relationships while they’re working on mutual tasks.”
Why Men’s Sheds have been so successful in building self-esteem, friendships and community cohesion, whilst other initiatives have failed, is not lost on Gary.
“Men love helping others and will help someone else before helping themselves. They love sharing and teaching skills they have and sheds provide a male-friendly and male-acceptable way of doing this,” he says.
“Blokes also enjoy learning in informal environments and like to have ‘ownership’ and run their own show. By the time most men retire they have usually had a gutful of being bossed around!”
Although Gary is quick to explain that health promotion is a ‘by-product’ of Men’s Sheds, rather than their primary role, there is no denying that each shed provides an ideal environment for sharing important information. Consequently, AMSA’s federal funding has been given with the condition that all shed members have health screenings and practical health resources available and a program has been developed in collaboration with both local and national health services. Aptly named ‘Spanner in the works?’, the program sets itself apart by communicating in a practical, ‘no-fuss’ style.
“The aim is to keep ‘Spanner in the works?’ male-relevant, short and sweet and with a touch of humour,” Gary says.
“It’s available to sheds for free but is also available to other interested groups such as schools, councils and private clubs if they pay for the booklets needed.”
This year the AMSA plan to use ‘Spanner in the works?’ to design a men’s weight loss program, create a wallet card outlining key men’s health supports and expand their new website with information about fatherhood and emotional wellbeing in addition to their usual agenda.
“Heart disease, strokes, cancer, diabetes and obesity are all a huge focus for us but so is suicide given that the national rate is nearly double that of the national road toll,” Gary says.
For family members who think their fathers, brothers, sons or husbands might benefit from the support that a Men’s Shed or ‘Spanner in the works?’ offers, Gary believes that taking a gentle approach to making the suggestion will have the greatest success.
“Generally nagging only gets blokes to dig their heels in so I suggest that planting a seed, giving it a bit of water and sunshine and then waiting is best! In my opinion, men like to process information for a while before making decisions.”
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