Some men have a sacred bond with their shed: it’s a solitary haven to escape daily stresses and concentrate on their hobby. In recent years, sheds have become communal spaces where men gather to share ideas and experiences. Shedding can address serious issues, especially for older men, who face particular mental health challenges during retirement and bereavement. The Morley Shed is one such communal haven. Lorraine Harding visited to find out more about the role of sheds for men keeping mentally well.
JAN/FEB 2024 ISSUE
Hidden away inside an old textile mill in Morley is a wood-lover’s paradise. We enter a large room full of benches, machinery, friendly smiling faces – and the lovely smell of freshly-cut wood. There we are greeted by facilitator Ally. She makes us warmly welcome and soon we are able to speak to some of the dozen or so people working at benches, making bird-boxes, bat-boxes and other works of art.
This is the Morley Shed - formerly Men in Sheds. This project offers the opportunity to both practice woodworking skills and make new friends. There are over seventy members, both men and women. Whether you are an experienced wood turner or a complete beginner, you will find a home here. The Shed is, as more than one person tells us, “like family”.
There are lots of different types of people who make up the “family”. We talk to Paul, who comes to the Shed once a week. He enjoys a joke with friends, as well as the creative aspect. He isn’t an experienced wood worker. “My last bit of woodworking was at school,” he laughs. “Which was quite a few years ago!” Paul found out about the Shed project from a cousin in Nottingham. “He goes to one down there. He said it might be useful for me.” Paul had been caring for his wife full time. “After my wife passed away last year, I thought it was a good opportunity to come and have a look,” he confides. “I’ve been coming ever since.” Paul shows us a table he had made as a personal project. He’s made bird-boxes, planters and bug houses, all of which have been commissioned. Paul also goes to craft fairs with other Shedders to sell their wares. Paul has no doubt that his mental health is now much better, thanks to the Morley Shed. “It’s camaraderie, teamwork,” he says. “A chance to find out what other people’s problems are. Their mental health might be better for coming here and socializing.”
Though Paul is a relative beginner, the Shed caters for people at every level. Jon was already an experienced wood turner and artist when he came to the Shed about five years ago. He likes the opportunity to pass his skills on at the Shed and he enjoys the social side. “It’s a social centre,” he tells us. “It’s great for anybody with social isolation.” He thinks men tend to become more isolated than women, and are less likely to share their problems, sometimes being embarrassed to talk about medical problems. But at the Shed, people are very open and the men find they can talk. Jon currently makes abstract art and sculptures in wood. He calls them “mad animals”. The animals are very popular: “I start with feet and build upwards. They’re all massive and they’re all insane!”
Alan also has a creative background. He was originally an artist but has spent his working life with computers. However, Alan was always a good handyman, so was pleased to join the Shed four or five years ago to make use of the larger equipment. He has come regularly since he retired. “It’s woodworking therapy for me,” he says. “I just enjoy it so much.” Some of the men here come mainly to be social, to find someone to talk to. But for Alan it’s the wood itself which is the most enjoyable and therapeutic aspect.
Tom was a heavy goods vehicle mechanic who had a heart attack last year and effectively retired at 64. “I thought, I’ll find myself something to do,” he says. His wife discovered the Shed and booked him in last September. Since then, he has made a dark oak garden table which he shows us. He gains “a lot of satisfaction” from the Shed; it’s good fun. He finds that talking to others, helping and being helped, “does help your mental health”. He did not want to be simply sitting at home with no-one to talk to. Tom has to take things steady with his heart condition but comes to the Shed twice a week.
“I’ve never touched a piece of wood in my life, before I came here,” says Steve. He enjoys the comradeship of the friendly people at the Shed. Steve was a chef in the Royal Air Force and on TV and film sets – he isn’t shy to drop a few famous names. His retirement had come as a shock to him. “I’d always had people around me – lots of people. And all of a sudden, you’re on your own. What do you do?” Steve has been coming to the Shed for around three years and attends twice a week. “You have a good laugh!” he says. Steve has made a bench which he has now given to his grandson.
Though originally just for men, five years ago the Shed opened its doors to women. “There were a few teething issues at the start,” says Ally, who facilitates the project. A few men didn’t like the idea, but they realised after a while that being inclusive was better for everyone. One the day we visit, the women are in the minority, but they are a vital part of the group. Julie makes beautiful pictures using pyrography, which is essentially burning lines and patterns into wood with a heated tool. Chris, Shed Secretary, has been at-tend- ing for fifteen months. She originally saw a leaflet about the Shed in a cobbler’s shop. Chris gets “withdrawal symptoms” if she misses a session! “I go into my own world,” she says, referring to the concentration required to work with wood. Yet the experience is far from solitary; there are always people around. Chris assures us, “We all get on.”
It’s a varied membership but belonging to the group brings the men and women together. The Shed is mainly for those over 40, with an average age about 65. The oldest is over 90! This elder Shedder makes elaborate objects out of scraps of wood. Equipment, mostly donated, is to a professional standard.
The premises include a large kitchen, where there is a small library of books on many different aspects of wood working. Wooden objects are everywhere. Products are sold at craft fairs raise income, but some are donated to schools and community groups.
Many Shedders speak of companionship, rapport, having a good time. The positive impact on mental health is undeniable. For a lot of members, the Shed is a vital part of their lives. It is crucial to people’s well-being, underpinning their mental health and giving them a sense of positivity they would otherwise struggle to find. “It’s a lifeline,” says John. “We have a lot of time laughing.” Another Shedder comments, “I spring out of bed on a morning!”
Part of the Shed’s success lies in Ally, who holds the group together. Ally is a qualified joiner and teacher who has been at the Shed for nearly seven years. Her role is a key one. She oversees the equipment but also looks out for the health of the Shedders - several have long-term conditions. “I love it,” Ally says. “I get so much out of it. I do it for the love of the people.” She finds that Though originally just for men, five years ago the Shed opened its doors to women. “There were a few teething issues at the start,” says Ally, who facilitates the project. A few men didn’t like the idea, but they realised after a while that being inclusive was better for everyone. One the day we visit, the women are in the minority, but they are a vital part of the group. Julie makes beautiful pictures using pyrography, which is essentially burning lines and patterns into wood with a heated tool. Chris, Shed Secretary, has been attending for fifteen months. She originally saw a leaflet about the Shed in a cobbler’s shop. Chris gets “withdrawal symptoms” if she misses a session! “I go into my own world,” she says, referring to the concentration required to work with wood. Yet the experience is far from solitary; there are always people around. Chris assures us, “We all get on.”
We leave the Shed feeling inspired. The enjoyment of the members and the sense of a strong group working together is palpable. Anyone who is looking for a hobby and likes to spend time with other people should give it a go. We wish the Shed all the best in the future!
The Morley Shed
Monday – Thursday, 10am – 4pm
The Environment and Business Centre, Merlyn-Rees Avenue, Morley, Leeds, LS27 9SL
5 Ways to keep to keep mentally healthy
Older men face particular mental health challenges. But there are a few things they can do to keep their brains fit. Leeds is lucky in that it has a special project dedicated to men staying well: Men’s Health Unlocked is a network that brings together a lot of amazing work in the city. Judy Wild spoke to MHU’s worker Damian Dawtry to get his take. The network supports all sorts of men in the city. “A lot of them are men who just want something to do,” says Damian. “They are often retired, out of work, isolated, widowed or wanting to do something, wanting to give.” Find out how you can stay mentally well below.
1. GET A (SOCIAL) LIFE
As men get older, many find their social life has dwindled. Many men find friends at work, but when they retire these friends can disappear. In 1990, studies showed that only 3% of men said they had no friends – but this figure has risen by fivefold in recent years. Pubs, once the habitat of a particular breed of man, are closing with ever more frequency. All the more reason to make an effort. Often the best answer is to join a group. “In some respects they have taken over from pubs as a place to meet,” says Damian. “We are constructing places for men to go to have the social interaction they would have had in pubs.” There are men’s groups popping up all over the city. Try one yourself.
2. FOLLOW YOUR PASSION
For a lot of older men, the idea of joining a “social group” might be pretty horrifying. It might be less intimidating to find a group that aligns with an existing hobby or interest. “Men in Sheds is a good example of this approach,” says Damian. “It’s good to have activities to do rather than advertise the group as social. For example, advertise it as a woodworking or walking group. You get a lot of peer support and banter. That’s when the good stuff comes out.” Think of your later years as a perfect opportunity to try out a new hobby or concentrate on one you’ve neglected over the years. Take up fishing, join an art class, help out at a gardening project. It all has an impact on the way you feel.
3. DON’T JUST SIT THERE...
As we age, it’s very tempting to stop playing sports or keeping fit. But being physically active is closely linked to staying mentally well. It can be pretty galling to think that you are no longer fit enough to play on the local football team – but there are alternatives for older men. Walking Football is a big thing in Leeds and Wakefield. And nothing beats taking a daily constitutional to buy a paper.
Life as an older man can be stressful. Damian doesn’t sugar coat the issues. “The suicide rate for men over the age of 80 increases as they become widowed,” he says. “A lot of their social life was linked to their spouse. Other causes are addiction issues, loss of employment including retirement. Separa- tion from children and being diagnosed with a serious illness.” It’s vital we find a way to handle these stresses and stay resilient. Often it’s the way we look at things that changes our stress levels. You might have heard of mindfulness or medita- tion – it’s never too late to give it a try.
If you are really struggling, there’s no shame in asking for help from professionals. “Older men find it more difficult to ask for help, because of their generational outlook,” says Damian. Men of a certain age just aren’t used to thinking about their mental health. Damian’s project is trying to raise the issue of men’s health and remove the stigma associated with not being mentally well. “Because of the inequalities women have faced and the work done to resolve this, some of the issues faced by men have been sidelined,” thinks Damian. “Now we are being able to raise these health and inequality issues specific to men and it is becoming more acceptable to address these issues. It’s about breaking down barriers.”
For all the latest information on all aspects of men’s health in Leeds, check out Damian’s project.
Men’s Health Unlocked