Cuts to benefits such as fuel and telephone allowances over recent years have made the isolation experienced by some 130,000 over-65s living alone in the State ever more acute.
But such challenges have also served to awaken an enterprising spirit within that community.
Down the Well Road, past the Portlaoise Retail Park, up the stairs and into the window box of the town's equestrian centre, a surprising social gathering is taking place. As they do every Tuesday, Ray Harte and his friends in the Portlaoise Men's Shed are drinking tea and racking their brains as to what will be the next project the group will undertake.
“We started out doing a lot of small projects initially, but now what we’re doing is starting to look into areas like environment, energy, food, heritage, biodiversity and maybe even tourism,” says shed chairman Ray, as he takes a seat amid the din of hammers, saws, power drills and, most importantly, conversation caused by his co-workers.
“Our primary role is to prevent isolation due to unemployment or retirement, because on retirement a lot of guys lose the network of people that they’ve worked with… the kettle, teapot and coffee are our most important tools in the workshop.
“In Ireland men aren’t great at looking after their own mental health and wellbeing sometimes, and I suppose just by virtue of lads coming down here and chatting it’s worth 120 visits to the doctor,” says Ray, as he sets about repairing the fractured bike chain off a destitute-looking BMX.
To say the venue is a hive of activity would be a gross understatement. As we walk into the workshop proper, Ray points out everything from bike repairs to bat houses, vegetable seed packets to enormous papier-maché carrots and parsnips and - the group’s newest venture - water containers designed to safely catch and store rainwater for domestic use upon the introduction of water charges.
Aside from the sense of fulfilment derived from the fruits (and vegetables) of their own labour, Ray and his colleagues take great pride in their community-wide approach. Young people from the local area are regularly invited to partake in practical workshops where they learn the skills of craftsmanship.
Right next door, Joe Grant is preparing the pyrography room for its next use. The process of burning images and designs onto wooden boards, Joe takes it upon himself to impart his pyrography speciality on anyone who may take an interest.
"If a fella comes over and says 'give us a go of that', you get them involved. I get a kick out of it, and it keeps everyone happy," says 67-year-old Joe, who retired from the ESB after 41 years in the job.
“It’s a great place to come down and chat with the lads, and you don’t have anyone saying ‘do this’ or ‘do that’. Men don’t have any outlet except to go to a pub, whereas women have the ICA. Fellas come in, they might open up, perhaps bring in a bank letter and say ‘look what I’m after getting today’, so we find men can express themselves which is good for their mental health as well,” adds Joe.
One hundred kilometres away in Portmarnock, Co Dublin, Pat Monaghan is furtively preparing for a night of committee meetings in the local GAA club.
Pat (72) directs operations for Naomh Mearnóg GAA’s Groundforce team, a group of retired club members who tend to its extensive pitch complex on a daily basis.
“We had a groundsman in charge, but then we got more land and more pitches and the place got too big for him to manage, so we got a volunteer group on board from those of us who are retired, and it just grew from that,” says retired teacher Pat, a former intercounty dual star for Westmeath during his own playing days.
“It’s a social outlet for a lot of them. The 11 o’clock break each day is great craic for them, they all take turns with the catering arrangements and there’s a good laugh and chat about games. It gets you up out of bed in the morning too. You’ve something to aim at, you’ve work to do, and then you can take pride in what you’re doing when the place is looking well,” adds Pat, before busying himself with his many other responsibilities.
Back in Portlaoise, men’s shed chairman Ray Harte is of the opinion that Ireland is acting as a guiding light of the movement as it gradually starts to spread across the continent.
“Ireland has the fastest growing shed community in the world. It started in Australia 14 years ago, then came to Ireland and now we’re bringing the whole concept of men’s shed to Wales, England, Scotland and Europe through Ireland,” says Ray.
He is also keen to point out the employment that has been gained by various group members who partook in the skilled workshops on offer.
Although the society has been the beneficiary of assistance from Laois County Council, and the generous patronage of the Sheehan family who own the equestrian complex, Ray says that the group has big ambitions, and is always in need of any extra assistance that can be provided to keep a most worthwhile venture going.
“We still have to bring in a lot of our own tools which is how we kicked it off, we’d like to get our own workshop completely kitted out in future, so we’re always looking for power tools, hand tools and woodworking tools which will allow us to work on better and bigger projects.”