Join the club: Men’s social spaces ease transition to retirement

By Susan Goldberg | December 8, 2016 | Last updated on December 8, 2016
4 min read

Walk into Winnipeg’s Woodhaven Community Club on a Tuesday afternoon, and you’ll likely find a group of men in their 60s, 70s and 80s. They may be whittling Diamond Willow walking sticks, or discussing the best way to repair a broken lamp on the worktable, or putting the final coat of varnish on a wooden birdhouse. The coffee is on. Someone has brought baked goods to share. One guy drives in each week from his farm outside the city and the fresh eggs he brings are always in demand. Another has brought his dog, who wanders happily from man to man in search of pats. A young woman drops off her 85-year-old grandfather, who hasn’t been getting out much since his wife died. He hangs back a bit at the door but one of the men recognizes him and greets him with a hug. As the men work on their projects, the low hum of conversation fills the room.

On the surface, it looks pretty simple: a bunch of older guys getting together to do some “older guy” things at a community centre. But something powerful is happening. Dubbed “Men’s Sheds,” this initiative is the first of its kind in Canada, bringing together retired men for collaborative activities such as woodworking, cooking, repairing bikes or making music. The goal, says shed founder Doug Mackie, 76, is to improve the quality of life for retired men, many of whom can suffer without the daily structure and the sense of self working once afforded them.

“Men who have retired can have poor coping skills,” says Mackie, who ran a chain of travel agencies and then worked as an independent financial advisor before retiring last year. “They can be lonely or anxious. They don’t like the idea of meeting strangers. They can become housebound and depressed or find themselves fighting with their spouses or family members. These are the guys who may be phoning their financial planner four or five times a day, every time the market fluctuates.”

All of those factors, notes Mackie, can lead to an increase in unhealthy coping strategies such as smoking, gambling, overeating, drinking, prescription drug abuse or Internet addictions. Men’s Sheds – there are currently 11 across Canada, and the organization is always looking to expand – are designed to counteract those forces by providing a place for men to socialize.

Psychology professor Dr. Corey Mackenzie is the director of the University of Manitoba’s Aging & Mental Health Laboratory and, during his research on Men’s Sheds, he’s talked to retirees across the country. “Men really do speak about the need for this kind of program,” says Mackenzie. “They talk about feeling disconnected, seeing all the older men sitting by themselves at Tim Hortons, sipping coffee. They’re hungry for social activity but they don’t know how to get it. The sheds provide what’s missing.”

The sheds, he suggests, may fill a gap in seniors’ programming for men: most seniors’ centres are skewed towards women, in terms of membership and programming. A 2014 study of seniors’ centres in Alberta, for example, found that men represented only 40 percent of membership, and significantly less in board makeup; in 2010, men made up only 26 percent of seniors’ centres members in Ontario.

Mackie and Mackenzie can’t say for sure exactly why Men’s Sheds are a growing phenomenon, but both speculate it may have something to do with the fact that they are, as Mackenzie puts it, “bottom-up, grassroots organizations where men have a say in how they are run, if they’d like. It’s a more empowering model.”

Men’s Sheds take a “shoulder-to-shoulder” approach to programming and socializing. Mackie notes that many men tend not to do as well in face-to-face activities, or in sharing their feelings while sitting with others in a circle. Those arrangements can seem confrontational. “But put some guys around a broken lawnmower and ask them to fix it,” he says, “and conversations will begin.”

Conversations can lead to “health by stealth.” The sheds, says Mackenzie, aren’t especially designed to promote health and well-being, but a small body of research shows that they may be doing just that. Firstly, there’s the advantage of getting out and being active rather than sitting around the house all day. Secondly, there’s the potential for increased health literacy, through guest speakers and informal networking. The Woodhaven Community Club often has a guest speaker, someone from Addictions Manitoba, a diabetes or Alzheimer’s education unit, or Ducks Unlimited. “If a guy needs to have prostate surgery and he’s worried about it,” says Mackenzie, “he might find that other guys in the group have had a similar surgery and are willing to talk about it.”

Both Mackenzie and Mackie say that advisors can play a role in promoting their male clients’ emotional as well as financial well-being. As gatekeepers to discussions about retirement, “planners are in a great position to get men thinking about these issues,” says Mackenzie. Mackie adds that advisors can ask about their clients’ social plans and respectfully suggest activities. “If, as a financial planner, you can work not only on the financial side but also to help support your client’s mental well-being, then your relationship continues with that client, your book of business is more stable, and you’re less likely to be dealing immediately with end-of-life or insurance claim issues,” he says. “When your clients remain healthy for as long as possible, everyone wins.”

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Susan Goldberg

Susan is an award-winning freelance writer and editor based in Thunder Bay, Ont. She has been writing about personal finance for more than 20 years.