Hidden in an unassuming cluster of sheds, huts and old shipping containers, down a dirt track behind the Cragieburn SES in Melbourne’s outer north, is a suburban sanctuary.
Known as the Hume Men’s Shed – Cragieburn, it has become a staple of the local community.
Peter Shea, a shed regular, or ‘shedder’, explains how an impulsive moment has made a positive difference to his life. ‘I’d retired, and I used to walk around the shed, and I’d been under the impression that the shed was really for specialised people in those things,’ he says. ‘But one day I thought I’d go around and just try it.’
‘I’ve never looked back since the day I walked in the gate. I should have done it ten years ago.’
It’s a familiar story for many members of the Hume shed. Most come from chance, and few have any real trade background.
Men’s Sheds have been something of an organic Australian phenomenon. From only twenty-five sheds in 2005, there are now about 1000 recognised sheds across the country, and many more arising overseas, including a movement in Europe. In most cases, these sheds offer an opportunity for men – most often of retirement age – to share a workshop and try their hands at craftsmanship, or share their skills.
But the sheds’ success can’t be simply attributed to the allure of warm, humming workshops. It’s their social function that have helped make them a pivotal part of their local communities.
Professor Barry Golding, an academic at Federation University and a Patron of the Australian Men’s Shed Association, has spent a considerable amount of time researching Men’s Sheds and sees their value stemming from a fundamental need.
‘The World Health Organisation recognises that people are well for a number of universal reasons,’ he says, ‘and one of the key things for people being well, no matter how old they are, is to actually be socially connected.’
The shed offers a camaraderie that Shea never had in his working life: driving trains left little time for socialising.
‘You’re working in shift work,’ he recalls. ’The other blokes would be doing the opposite shift. There are very few shifts that are nine-to-five where you can have any social life. It was very solitary.’
Now that Shea is spending around ten hours a week in the shed, he’s making up for those lost days of social interaction.
’We’re a Men’s Shed, but we’re a little community too,’ he says.
Terry Clewer also became involved with the shed for the social aspect, but for a more critical reason.
His partner Beryl explains that Terry experienced a major stroke which left him unable to speak. Recovery was slow, but Terry was conversing again eight months later.
‘We got him back to work for ten years, on a computer, with just the left-hand side of his body,’ Beryl says. ‘And then he had to retire, and because he was at home by himself with no-one to talk to, his speech started to go again.’
Beryl found the shed and they’ve both been involved ever since, with Terry chatting all the way. It’s become such a fixture of their lives that Beryl has been secretary of the shed committee for a number of years. Her presence in a Men’s Shed is something of a rolling joke, but she commands the same respect as any other member. At one point, she cheekily demands the others look away while she gives Terry a kiss.
The shed’s Vice-President Peter Basinski says that the culture of respect and acceptance are an important part of its success.
‘You’re equal here,’ he says. ‘Doesn’t matter what your race, creed, colour, whatever it is – you’re one of the boys, and we look at it that way.’
Fostering that camaraderie has great benefits. For some, even the simple gift of having somewhere to go is invaluable.
’You come down to the Men’s Shed, and we talk,’ Basinski says. ’We know we’re all roughly around the same age, we have a chit-chat. We get a few guys here who just come and sit and just listen to the hustle and bustle.’
The sense of acceptance and belonging also helps members to open up and air their vulnerabilities in a safe environment.
‘Whatever is said in the shed stays in the shed,’ Basinski says. ’And sometimes it’s easier to talk to somebody you don’t know. Ninety per cent of us, I’d say, have suffered from depression. And there’s a few guys here at the moment that suffer from depression.’
The reasons for that depression can be varied, but the transition into retirement is one of the most prolific.
‘Most guys, if they drink, they’ll drink more. If they smoke, they’ll smoke more,’ says Basinski. ‘[They’ll] get depression, go down to play the pokies, lose money, crack the shits.’
Basinski’s assessment rings true for many Australians. A recent national study shows that those of retirement age are the most likely to drink alcohol daily, and while another indicates that seniors are overly prolific gamblers.
Another issue arises when men find themselves widowed. Not only are they now alone, but they often lack some of the necessary life skills to carry on – victims, of sorts, of traditional marital roles.
‘They don’t know how to cook. They never learnt how to do basic cooking. That’s why I started to teach classes in basic cooking,’ Basinski says.
He also cooks lunches for the members, and offers ‘travellers’ – that is, leftovers to take home – to anyone who wants them.
‘I like to see the smiles on their faces of appreciation,’ he says. ‘I don’t need a thank you or anything like that.’
Despite the role that Men’s Sheds play in the community, securing funding across the country has not been easy. Most money comes from local councils, and although Men’s Sheds are a core element of the National Men’s Health Strategy for 2020-2030, the Federal government offers only a small, highly competitive grants scheme.
But for the shedders of Cragieburn at least, the future is bright. They’ve fundraised more than $100,000 for a new shed, and with another $90,000 being invested by Hume City Council, they are now close to confirming a space they hope will triple their capacity – and their membership base.
More space to move, certainly, but also more space to broaden a warm and inviting community.