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As doors close due to the Covid-19 pandemic, Men’s Sheds opens up to technology

With social gathering severely restricted due to the Covid-19 pandemic, how is the group keeping its vital service going? Barry Sheridan, CEO of Irish Men’s Sheds Association, explains

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The first Irish Men’s Shed was set up in 2009, at the time of the last global recession, since then the sheds have become an important social outlet in many men’s lives. Pictured: Belssington Men's Shed before the Government announced guidelines to help fight the spread of the Covid-19 coronavirus outbreak.

 

Men’s Sheds are community-based projects, where men can come together to learn, share skills and make long-lasting friendships. Over the past decade, Ireland has become one of the leading Men’s Sheds communities in the world. Today, there are more than 460 Men’s Sheds across the island of Ireland, visited by approximately 12,000 men on average per day. With social gathering severely restricted due to the Covid-19 pandemic, Barry Sheridan, CEO of Irish Men’s Sheds Association, explains how the group is keeping its vital service going. 

We all want to feel a sense of connection – even if it seems strange to talk about that in our current situation. The first Irish Men’s Shed was set up in 2009, at the time of the last global recession, since then the sheds have become an important social outlet in many men’s lives, giving them a purpose and a sense of belonging at a time when many are at risk of social isolation.

Barry Sheridan, CEO of Irish Men’s Sheds Association
Barry Sheridan, CEO of Irish Men’s Sheds Association

In 2011, the Irish Men’s Sheds Association was set up to support the development of new sheds and to help sustain existing ones. Over the past few years, we have experienced huge growth in numbers and we have received international recognition; in 2019 the Association was named as one of Ireland’s Sustainable Development Goals Champions, as well as winning the prestigious European Citizens’ Prize in 2018.

A sense of community

Our primary objective is to improve the health and wellbeing of our members. In fact, the Men’s Sheds movement grew from the idea that, traditionally, men are not very good talkers and don’t tend to open up about their feelings.

We have a saying that men don’t talk face to face, they talk shoulder to shoulder. The shed gives them a safe place to do just that. We encourage openness within the sheds, and we have seen something magical happen, as men who might not normally open up start to talk freely about issues that affect them or their families. There’s a sense of camaraderie from being involved as the men move from one stage of life to the next.

Making a difference in men’s lives

Everyone who visits the shed may have skills that can contribute to helping others or giving back to the wider community. No two sheds are exactly the same: members design the activity they like to get involved in and decide how often they meet. Activities can include building boats, wood turning and creative writing. A huge part of what each Men’s Shed does involves contributing to the community; that could be helping out at local events, building park benches, or getting involved in the Tidy Towns competition. Some sheds open one day a week; others are open for six days a week.

We constantly receive feedback from our members about the difference the sheds are making in their lives and their families’ lives. Our independent research has shown that men’s mental health improves after getting involved with a shed.

Our primary objective is to improve the health and wellbeing of our members.
Barry Sheridan, CEO of Irish Men’s Sheds Association: "Our primary objective is to improve the health and wellbeing of our members."

More recently we developed a dedicated men’s health promotion programme, ‘Sheds for Life’ to support the physical and mental wellbeing of our members. Sheds for Life, supported by the HSE and Slaintecare, provides a suite of health related activities directly in the informal surrounds of the men’s sheds setting. Such activities include; health checks, physical activity and cooking/nutrition classes to name a few. The programme is solving a long standing problem for healthcare professionals who usually find it difficult to engage with this cohort of men.  

A couple of weeks ago, we had to make a very difficult choice. After the Government announced guidelines to help fight the spread of the Covid-19 coronavirus outbreak on March 13, we decided to temporarily close our sheds for meetings.

We took this measure because some of our members are among the most vulnerable, at-risk groups. But this decision meant we were asking them to do the exact opposite of what we were set up to do: to isolate rather than to connect.

Sticking together while staying apart

At a time when the risk of social isolation is very real, we had to figure out ways of keeping our members involved and connected, even when there are no sheds to go to for now. We started by setting up WhatsApp groups for every one of the sheds. This way, the members have a way to keep in contact with, and support, each other. We also set up a ‘buddy’ system that pairs members into groups of two. We encourage them to check in with each other regularly by texting, or better still, chatting by phone or video.

We’ve been using a bulk SMS messaging system to text every member of every shed, sharing links and videos. We’re also looking at ways to share tips to help members to use communication tools like Zoom.

Our campaign, which launched last week on RTE Radio One, is #CallThemForACuppa. It’s inspired by the most important tool in every shed: the kettle. That’s where the conversation starts. When people find themselves in their own kitchen, making a cup of tea, it’s the trigger to contact someone.

Connecting a community

We’re appealing not just to members but to the public. The sound of a familiar voice can make all the difference at a time like this. It’s about ensuring that no-one in the community is forgotten. It might help someone who needs the shopping done, or a prescription collected from the chemist.

While the last few weeks have been really challenging for us all, we’re trying innovative ways to keep our members connected. It’s been heartening to see initiatives like the Gweedore group in Donegal, which organises a singsong every night on Facebook Live.

When we come out the other side of this crisis, Men’s Sheds will be even more important, not just to existing members but to new ones whose circumstances will have changed permanently in this crisis. We encourage people to visit our website mensheds.ie, to get involved in our social media channels, to volunteer, join, or to donate.


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