By Mitch Sabine
On a quiet Wednesday morning in Kenmore Hills, in the outer suburbs of Brisbane, three men stand around a table in a shed, sharing a quiet conversation over a hot winter’s coffee.
They are older guys, all above 50, and mostly retired. They have a nonchalant feel, casually sipping their cuppa, wearing carefree expressions on their faces.
The winter’s chill is somewhat relaxed by the smell of hot tea and coffee circulating the room, but even those strong aromas are made passive by the lingering smell of a bloke’s shed.
It might not look like much on first glance, but this is a space where these older men can feel comfortable, stay busy, learn new skills and most importantly, have a yarn with other men in the same situation.
This is ShedWest, a branch of the Australian Men’s Shed Association.
The idea for AMSA is simple. Set up basic sheds all around Australia where older men can get hands on experience in woodwork, metalwork, design and even computing skills.
The aims are simple as well. Get older men, who are mostly retired, back involved with their communities, and keep their minds and bodies active, in the ultimate hope of combating depression and loneliness in older Australian men.
As AMSA President Mort Shearer explains the idea was a lot easier said than done.
“A lot of men in Australian society, particularly older men from past generations, have trouble expressing their emotions,” Shearer says. “When they begin to age, they find themselves trapped inside.
“Relationship breakdown, retirement, divorce, they all contribute to physical and mental health problems, and myself and others wanted to find a practical way to deal with these issues.
“We decided to think outside the box, and find a hands-on way for men to get active and find a purpose for themselves.”
Shearer says the idea of a shed, while simple and plain, provided men with some common ground.
“When older blokes here about ‘come to this mental health forum or discussion’, they are not really interested … so we wanted to give guys a place where they all feel comfortable,” Shearer says.
“Whether they have plenty of experience in woodwork or metalwork, or they’re newcomers, it doesn’t matter,” he says.
There are now sheds all around Australia, contributing to their communities in whatever way they can.
This particular morning in Kenmore, three men were preparing to make toys for a local school.
The first impression of these men might not be overwhelming, but as the conversation unfolds, you begin to learn more about the amazing lives these men have had.
Ray Steffenson, 78, is the woodwork instructor for ShedWest, and spends most of his time there, teaching new skills and brushing up on his own.
A qualified tradesman, Ray spent most of his career in the carpentry, woodturning and building professions.
After he retired he began to feel separated from society and felt he had no direction.
“I thought that was normal for an old bloke like me, but it just wasn’t healthy for my head,” he explains.
Five years ago, Ray experienced a serious bout of illness, a combination of physical and mental strain on his body.
“There was a range of illnesses, and eventually I had to have an operation,” Steffenson says.
“I thought that would be the end of it, but the doctors stuffed it up, and left me in more pain than before the procedure.”
A complication in the operation very nearly cost Ray his life, after his stomach became infected and doctors feared they would not be able to save him.
“After I recovered, I knew I had to get back out there…what I was doing was not healthy, so I decided to get back into woodwork,” he says.
Ray leads the tour of the shed with gusto, his eyes beaming with pride as he displays the wooden toys and bird feeders that he has made for the nearby primary school.
He hurries around, showing off old vintage chairs he has restored for a grandmother and even a toy digger for children to play with.
The shed has given him a new lease on life, he explains, as he works busily on a toy rocking chair which they will donate when completed.
“It’s amazing what it can do for your self-esteem, just being around new mates, and enjoying the work you are doing,” Steffenson says.
Then two more men arrive, one of them is Queensland’s Shed Association president Graeme Curnow.
He says it’s remarkable how far the shed has come.
“When we first started, we had basic equipment like a bansaw, hand saws, basic metalwork gear…now we have all this!,” Curnow says, as he looks around the workshop.
What’s more impressive is the range and number of men that have become involved.
“We’ve had ex-lawyers, cops, tradesmen, businessmen, engineers, there’s even a guy who used to be an archaeologist,” Curnow says.
Steffenson rejoins the group about half-an-hour later, and as they stand around enjoying a fresh brew of coffee, he proudly shows off the rocking chair he has just completed, the fresh lick of varnish still shining in the light.
“Ahh, it’s good fun isn’t it?,” Steffenson asks the group.
Each of the men nod, smile, and go back to sipping contently on their coffee.