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Ladies eating ice cream

Good friends are good for you

In our research with retired people, twice as many said that the thing they missed most about work was the social interaction.

Friends are good for you. Hard to believe sometimes, especially if you’ve met some of my friends, but it’s true. There’s a strong link between social connections and mental health – having a mate to talk to when things get bad, yes, but also just having people to do stuff with or have a laugh with.

The link holds good throughout our lives. When we asked people over 50 what they thought was most important for a good later life, social connections came through as strongly as health and financial security. But as we grow older, life can knock big holes in our networks.

In our research with retired people, twice as many people said that the thing they missed most about work was the social interaction as said they missed having a structure and something to do, and nearly three times as many as missed the money.

Trevor lost touch with people when his wife died – “I’m quite a shy person, and there I was on my own”. Just like me, and lots of other men, Trevor’s wife had kept up their friendships, arranged to see people and maintained their social life.

I met Trevor, along with Neil, Keith and a bunch of other men, at the Camden Town Shed in London. Despite the name, it’s not really a shed. It’s a room in a community centre on an estate, full of power tools – a circular saw, jigsaws, a pillar drill, a sander, a couple of lathes, as well as a kiln tucked away in a cupboard in the corner. It’s a place where men – mostly retired men, though there’s no age limit – can come to do practical projects that they don’t have the space or the kit to do at home. Started in 2011, it was the first Men’s Shed in the UK.

Trevor heard about the Shed and decided to get out of the house, and out of his comfort zone, and go along. Now, after 3 years at the Shed, his confidence has grown so much that he’s just applied for a role as a film extra.

Neil was sanding a Noah’s Ark puzzle he’d carved over the previous couple of weeks. As well as his own projects, he helps maintain the power tools. Neil lost his job a few years ago because of ill health. Doing something useful has been a lifeline. “Before I came here, I was just going down.”

Keith was a carpenter before he was diagnosed with cancer. After treatment, he felt stuck in his flat. “When you’ve been ill, it’s easy to just lie around and mope.” His social worker found a community centre with lunch and bingo, “but I just thought no, that’s not for me. I like a bit of banter, I’m a bit sweary. Not in one of those places.” At the Shed, Keith has his head together with Bill, who’s making on a jewellery box, giving advice, sharing his expertise. “I’ve been in places like this since I left school at 15. It’s a home from home.”

And that what’s really struck me about the Men’s Shed. It’s a practical place, full of noise and sawdust, with a group of different guys working alongside each other, swapping tips and jokes. And that’s the way lots of men are used to interacting with each other, throughout their lives.

The men I met came because they wanted to make something – from a kids’ puzzle to a window frame, a side table to a sculpture. They didn’t come to meet people or because they were lonely. Nobody has to say that they need help – except to work the sander.

In my day job, at the Centre for Ageing Better, I’ll be taking the lessons from Men’s Sheds and similar organisations on what works to encourage more men to take that first step, make new connections and improve their mental wellbeing. And at home, I might just make a start on that treehouse for the kids.

Dan Jones
Director of Innovation and Change