Sensory Activities for Elderly Men: Men’s Sheds and Meaningful Movement

March 2, 2011

Men are different. A young woman in one of my seminars retorted, “That’s sexist!” when I made that statement.  Well, no.  It’s true.  Men are different than women.  While it’s maybe foolish to make generalizations, that one is true.  We heard it from you, too, at our recent workshops on New Sensory Activities for Alzheimer’s and Dementia.  “Can you help us with meaningful activities, especially for the men?”  Yes.

Meaningful Work in Carpentry

Men need different activities than women, to engage and interest them, help them feel productive, and to interact with the world.  Men identify themselves with their work, their career – as much or more than women do – and when that stage of life is over and retirement is upon them, hanging around the house doesn’t suit them.  (Just ask their wives!)  Where do they go?  The garage, the pub, the shed.  Why, and what can we, caregivers of the elderly, learn there?

The garage is full of stuff, pieces of stuff, large and small. Worn furniture, tools, parts of projects, things to repair, half-used spirits, paints, garden supplies – objects that were useful and now, maybe not.  The garage (or shed) is full of items collected over the years, associated memories, and a sense of the continuity of time.  It’s a safe place to putter, to sit and think, to work on hobbies or create new dreams.  It’s a space of one’s own.  As time goes by, the elder man may live in a group home or residential community. Just how does he find space for himself among the living rooms, foyers, and dining room that he must share with many others, especially lots of women?

If he’s finished with his career, and has lost his safe space, what can help build a man’s sense of himself?  If movement makes the man, then meaningful movement, connected to life, can help him connect – to himself, others, and the community.  When we think historically of  “men’s work”, we think of farming, building, forging, animal husbandry – important, practical and valued work from our hands and bodies, for our basic needs as a culture. Can we get creative, and re-create these essential and valued movement activities for today’s men, especially as they age?

The “Men’s Shed” movement in Britain and Australia can teach us a lot, and give us inspiration to adapt new spaces in our retirement homes and care communities to meet the special needs of the men we love and care for as they age.  A men’s shed is a designated place for older men to gather, meet, and work together on community projects.  Carpentry, woodworking, metalworking, and crafting are shared activities in these community spaces.

How can you create one? If space allows, a full-size out-building of a small or large shed, garage, or barn is ideal.  In small spaces, a designated table or corner within an existing structure or activity area can suffice with work surfaces and materials that can allow sorting, sanding, simple project-building, and sharing a tall tale or two while “shouldering” or just sitting in companionship with others.

Shouldering is a verb I made up to describe the familiar experience of sitting, standing, walking, or working side by side with another person.  If you’ve had teenagers in your life, you may have found that some of the best conversations you’ve had together happened during car rides.  If you’ve needed to have a difficult or delicate conversation with someone, you may have invited him or her to take a walk with you. Why?  That sitting/standing/walking side by side allows free conversation without the intensity of facing one another and looking (and being looked at) directly. It’s less personal, and so we may feel a bit more free, less inhibited, in speaking out loud.

For many men, putting their shoulders together side-by-side into a practical work project allows companionship and socialization in a comfortable, non-threatening way.

How To Implement a Men’s Club or Men’s Shed Program

Schedule it. Put it on your Activity or Community Calendar, and find a space to designate for shouldering activities.

Plan it. Additional themes of sports, cars, politics, geography, machinery, inventions, games, history add spice and new flavors to the mix.

Man it. Find a male staff member or volunteer to facilitate the sessions if possible.

Make it meaningful. In Gloucestershire, England, a men’s shed project for men over 5o to refurbish tools to be sent to Africa was sponsored by a local charity wanting to engage retired men who are at risk of isolation.  Within our own communities, we can be inspired to create toys for children or animals, garden planters and risers, small stools.  For those with dementia, provide a safe environment that allows sorting of materials, interesting and unusual containers and lids, and safe tools and materials to handle, build, and wrap with.

Make it green. Consider natural materials to enrich and engage the senses.  Raw wood, cloth, sheep’s wool, sandpaper, soil, plants all contribute to sense of touch, smell, sight, self-movement, vitality – essential for healthy living and aging.

For more information on Men’s Sheds, visit this link.

Good luck, and let us know how it goes!

Valerie Baadh Garrett

Agile Aging


2 Responses to “Sensory Activities for Elderly Men: Men’s Sheds and Meaningful Movement”

  1. Laura said

    We are currently setting up a ‘men as carers’ group. I think a man shed could be the answer we are looking for!

  2. Valerie Baadh Garrett said

    Laura, how’s the men’s group coming? Please keep me posted!


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