Neville Wren has spent a lifetime teaching.
Which is why after a career spent passing on his knowledge about firstly woodwork and metalwork and latterly electronics and computer aided control systems, the Aveo Lindfield Gardens resident found himself a little out of sorts when retirement beckoned.
He found his solution when a stint volunteering at his local Rotary led him to discover brother organisation the Willoughby Men’s Shed.
Wren says that while the shed afforded him the chance to use his skills in workshop management, he believes it has also given him new purpose.
“The shed has no compulsory aspects. You come and go as you please. You talk to who you want to. You make what you want. You work on community projects or you sit and chat. The flexibility suits me,” he says. Previously, Wren said he had been working in his own workshop but the men’s shed provided an opportunity to get back to his roots and mix with other men.
Wren, who spent nine years as the Willoughby Men’s Shed coordinator, says the theory is men talk “shoulder to shoulder”, usually while they are engaged in something else.
He says retirement can be a difficult time for men as it is sometimes seen as a loss of identity or a loss of self.
“Getting out and among other like-minded people can replace this feeling of loss, if we allow ourselves to do it".
The Shed has become a vital link in some members' health and wellbeing, and it has been in a position on a few occasions to refer (if not take) members to get professional assistance, he says.
The loneliness factor
Active Australians often find themselves drawn to community service organisations as a means of combating loneliness or social isolation.
Dr Michelle Lim, director of the Social Health and Wellbeing Lab (SHAW) at the Iverson Health Innovation Research Institute, recently helped compile a white paper called Ending Loneliness Together.
Dr Lim says loneliness is a critical issue of our time and that many people who feel lonely suffer in silence as this issue is “stigmatising, driven by a fear of being unneeded or looking weak, vulnerable, or inept”.
Some overseas-based research suggests older adults are at increased risk for loneliness and social isolation because they are more likely to face factors such as the loss of family or friends, chronic illness, and/or hearing loss or visual impairment.
However, Dr Lim says loneliness can lead to poorer health outcomes and earlier death across all age groups.
“We should be aware of how to manage our feelings of loneliness at every life transition. The life transitions for older Australians can include bereavement, the onset of illness, and reduced social networks. Older Australians can consider how they can protect themselves from chronic loneliness as they moved through transitions in their later years".
Dr Lim says older Australians can learn to manage feelings of loneliness in many different ways.
“Many people feel more connected with their community if they volunteer or participate in shared interest groups. However, some older Australians also choose to manage loneliness in different ways including having pets for companionship or doing solitary activities such as gardening or reading".
She says one of the benefits of participating in community service organisations such as The Men’s Shed is that they are more likely to report increased wellbeing.
“We know that improving social connection through any type of activity (i.e. volunteering or joining shared interest groups) is critical to good health”.
A place of belonging
Currently there are around 1,000 Men’s Sheds across Australia but fortunately there are tens of thousands more community development organisations – including Rotary Groups, Lions International, Probus Clubs and Country Women’s Associations – that follow a similar philosophy.
Typically self-funded, nonpartisan and non-sectarian, the focus of such groups is to provide a space for like-minded people to join together to do meaningful work in support of their communities.
The types of projects they get involved with can include anything from assisting those in need and sponsoring international exchanges for young people, to providing supplies to victims of fires and floods or building shelter for schools where shade is in short supply.
Volunteering Australia (VA) says currently more than 5.8 million Australians regularly engage in volunteering activities. This yields a 450 per cent return for every $1 invested.
According to the most recent ABS statistics those over 65 years of age who volunteer their time account for 17 per cent of all volunteers, with senior volunteers believed to contribute an average of 411 hours each per year.
Volunteer Queensland says, “The Silent Generation” or “Traditionalists” (those born prior to the “Baby Boomers” from 1945), come from a generation where long term commitment was more the norm than it is today.
These are the volunteers often seen receiving awards for 20, 30 or 40-plus years of volunteering service for the same organisation, and are more likely to believe that sacrifice or duty is part of volunteering.
But as Wren discovered, often it’s the members themselves who have the most to gain from joining such organisations through the chance to learn, teach, share and in some cases, heal.
“I get great personal satisfaction from being able to use the skills I have developed over my varied career in the education system. The counselling skills I developed with teenagers has transferred to older men and allows me to become a sounding board across a broad range of personal issues, to be an instructor on many machines and tools and to be a learner on new equipment that was not in existence when I was in the classroom,” he says.
“I also supervise a group of special needs men who regularly attend the Shed. This is an extension of my personal and education experiences, and it gives me great [enjoyment] to be able to help and see ‘my guys’ develop skills and confidence".
Volunteer Queensland says older volunteers often find a great sense of pride in working without pay through volunteer community groups, with the personal benefits of keeping their minds active, providing an opportunity to learn new skills, helping to improve their self-esteem and sense of worth the helping them to feel connected to and needed by their community far outweighing any monetary reward.
Having now been at The Shed for over a decade, Wren says the only prerequisite for being able to take advantage of the numerous benefits of joining a service organisation is “a willingness to give it a go”.
“Not every group suits all people. The Shed does not suit everyone, it suits those who chose to belong to it".
There are numerous community service organisations out there, all of whom warmly welcome new members. To read profiles on some of the best-known organisations, subscribe to ChapterMagazine for the full article, and to receive great articles, such as this one, straight to your inbox!