The men grab glue sticks from a basket, brown paper grocery bags and a pile of colored sheets — dainty butterflies, exotic flowers, Ukrainian Easter eggs. They begin to affix the artwork onto the bags which will be distributed to a local food shelf and thrift store.
About 30 seconds in, the ribbing begins.
“We generally have one person doing and four supervising,” one of the men clarifies to robust laughter.
The moment seems ordinary. It’s anything but. The 15 retired men around a U-shaped table at the Hopkins Activity Center aren’t just crafting. They’re staving off depression and suicide.
Ranging in age from late-50s to mid-80s, they’re members of the Hopkins-based Men’s Shed, part of an international movement begun 20 years ago in Australia to address growing concern about isolation and loneliness, particularly among men post-retirement. Sheds now number more than 2,000 worldwide, in urban and rural areas, with plans to open 500 more in the next five years.
Of the 12 American sheds, four are in Minnesota and two are in Wisconsin.
“During the last 20 years of my father’s life, he just could not get himself out of the house,” said Phil Johnson, 69, founder of the Hopkins-based group and managing director for the U.S. Men’s Sheds Association.
“We lose our work buddies,” he said. “Wives would like their guys to get out at least one day a week and go bother somebody else.”
After retiring from software development in 2014, Johnson spent a few years volunteering and fixing things around his house. Then he got restless. He did a Google search on “retired men’s activities” and up came the Australian Men’s Sheds, funded by the Australian government to give men a sense of purpose. (Sheds are also popular in Great Britain, Scotland, Ireland, Canada and New Zealand.
The Men’s Sheds motto: “Men don’t talk face-to-face. They talk shoulder-to-shoulder.” And they do that, preferably, while pursuing projects together from painting houses to woodworking to, well, affixing shopping bags with crayon art.
“Loneliness is a big issue, particularly right now,” said Julia Hildebrand, spokeswoman for ChangeX, a digital platform that helps to spread good ideas by finding funders and leaders in new locations. A 2017 study published in Lancet Public Health found that loneliness was associated with a 58 percent higher risk of death in men, compared with a 34 percent increase in women.
The Irish Men’s Shed Association has been a ChangeX solution partner since 2014, Hildebrand said. When ChangeX launched in Minnesota in 2016 with funding from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, “we knew the Men’s Sheds idea was one with huge potential in the U.S.,” she said.
Minnesota was particularly appealing because of the state’s high rate of volunteerism. Johnson registered with ChangeX to start the Hopkins Men’s Shed in 2016, expanding more recently to New Hope and Roseville.
Nick DeMichael, who recently moved to Willmar, is recruiting members for a shed there. Other sheds are located in Hawaii, Florida, Louisiana, Washington state and Michigan.
“There are so many men who can talk about how the Shed has helped them out of depression, got them away from sitting at home in front of the TV all day,” Hildebrand said.
“A Men’s Shed was a place to find rescue. These stories, they just make you cry.”
After the Today Show aired a segment on the Men’s Shed in Traverse City, Mich., in late November, Johnson received 79 e-mails in three hours, a good number of them from partners, spouses and daughters.
One e-mail said: “My dad could really use a Men’s Shed,” Johnson said.
While the organization’s name comes from the literal place where men keep their tools, gatherings are not limited to that setting. In Hopkins, for example, Johnson partnered with Susan Newville, coordinator of the bustling Hopkins Activity Center. She provides free space for the men to meet weekly (Thursdays at 1 p.m.) as well as access to her mailing list to publicize events.
The Hopkins Shed, the first in Minnesota, has grown from about a dozen men to more than 30 men over the past two years, Johnson said.
Jim Sarver of Minnetonka is former executive director of a mental health agency in northwest Illinois. After retiring, he found himself going to a local gas station to shoot the breeze with other guys gathered there as many as three times a day. Sarver, 75, started joking with his family that he was “going to the office.”
His daughter, who knew of the Men’s Sheds movement through her involvement with ChangeX (changex.org), suggested he take a look when he moved to the Twin Cities. He’s been a regular for more than a year.
Robert Fisher, 73, of Minnetonka, enjoys the camaraderie. “Look around and see these guys,” Fisher said as he busily glued art onto his shopping bags. “They’re alive and active and they’re fun.”
Bob Nelson, 72, of southwest Minneapolis, is one of the original members. “It’s good to see more guys,” he said. “My wife loves this. She says she’s going to come to a meeting.”
And she could. There are no gender restrictions. In Australia, 15 percent of members are women.
“Everyone’s welcome,” Johnson said. “You just show up.”
The group celebrated its two-year anniversary Dec. 6 with lunch at Hopkins’ Mainstreet Grill and a visit from Mayor Molly Cummings. Johnson remembers the first few meetings as being a bit unfocused.
“We spent three weeks talking about what our activities should be — then we scraped and painted a storage room,” Johnson said.
Soon, their mission was born: To do community service. “We patched walls, refinished a couple wood benches,” Johnson said. “In the spring, we landscaped. Then we adopted two parks in the city of Hopkins. Once a month, our meeting is to go walk around the park. We carpool so we’re talking to each other.
“We’ve all gotten to know each other pretty well. It’s a nice, cohesive group.”
An ‘isolation buster’
Not surprisingly, Johnson was recently honored with a “50 Over 50” award from AARP for his work as an “isolation buster.”
He’s quick though, to sing the praises of Newville, who has been the group’s greatest cheerleader and idea-generator. Since the group formed Dec. 6, 2016, she has collaborated on many of their more than 100 activities, ranging from civic projects (planting hostas, trimming trees, painting walls) to tours (the State Capitol, National Weather Center in Chanhassen, Federal Reserve Bank) to enjoying guest speakers. Peg Gaard from Open Circle Adult Services recently led a discussion about caring for a loved one with dementia.
“What a great concept,” Newville said. “It’s so much fun to listen to them chat and fool with each other and do projects and plan.”
The biggest benefit, she and others agree, is the opportunity for men to come together in a judgment-free zone to just hang out.
Stan Valensky, 69, of Chanhassen, was attending the Hopkins Men’s Shed for the first time, invited by a friend. He’ll be back.
“Summer, you keep busy,” said Valensky, who recently retired from Polaris. “But winter … it drives you nuts. Anything I can do to keep busy. This is what I’m looking for — an escape to keep me retired.”
His wife likes Men’s Sheds, too, Valensky said.
“Anything to keep me out of the house.”