Sheds heaven: What Britain can learn from Australia about men's health
Next week our Institute of Lifelong Learning teams up with three other bodies for a one-day conference called Discovering Men’s Sheds – but this is no academic rumination on the socio-cultural significance of garden storage. It’s a health issue.
Anyone working in healthcare will tell you that men, especially older men, especially working class older men, have always been a much more difficult target audience for health messages than women.
Men live unhealthier lives, on average, but are much more reticent about discussing health issues or asking for advice on matters of general wellbeing. The same is true in Australia, and that is where ‘men’s sheds’ have blossomed over the past decade or so as a genuine grass-roots phenomenon.
The starting point of the men’s shed movement was changes in housing. Once upon a time every house had a yard, every yard had a shed, and every shed had a bronzed ocker inside: repairing a bicyle or building a model boat or just getting away from the sheila and the kids for a bit.
As individual yards and sheds disappeared, some communities set up communal sheds where men could go for a cup of tea or a bit of relaxing repair-work, and over time these sheds somehow became more than originally intended. The shed was a safe, all-male environment where issues of health and wellbeing could be discussed informally.
As Misan and Sergeant explained in their seminal 2009 paper Men’s sheds—a strategy to improve men’s health (PDF): “men’s sheds have emerged across the country in the absence of any policy framework, support or co-ordination at State or Federal level. This is a phenomenon largely unprecedented and possibly unique among community based primary health care strategies in this country.”
It is only in recent years that the many independent, spontaneously generated community men’s sheds across Australia have started to work together, sharing ideas through organisations such as the Australian Men’s Sheds Association and MenSheds Australia. The value of sheds in promoting health ideas among men – especially older, working class men – has been enormous, so much so that other countries have started to pay attention,
The Irish Men’s Shed Forum was launched last year and now Britain is opening the rusty-hinged door and peering into that dusty, cobwebbed world of jamjars full of nails and useful pieces of string. Age UK has piloted a ‘Men in Sheds’ project in Nottingham, Greenwich and South Lakeland (funded by the Sir Jules Thorn Charitable Trust), and now organisations catering for men, for older people and for health promotion in general are keen to learn about the principals involved in sheds.
Next week’s conference (on Friday 29 September, in the Ramada Jarvis Hotel, Leicester) is a four-way partnership between the National Institute of Adult and Continuing Education (NIACE), Age UK, the Men’s Health Forum and the University of Leicester’s Institute of Lifelong Learning. The day will bring together delegates from all over the country to learn about the ways in which informal learning, health and wellbeing and the men’s shed initiative interrelate. Participants will explore how the activities in sheds impact positively upon men’s health and well-being, Age UK’s pilot projects and the value of non formal learning through sheds and similar initiatives.
- David Richardson, National Programme Delivery Manager, Age UK
- Peter Baker, Chief Executive Officer, Men’s Health Forum
- Jim Soulsby, Honorary Research Fellow, Institute of Lifelong Learning
- and Professor Barry Golding, Deputy Head of School of Education at the University of Ballarat, Down Under.