- Special Projects
Loneliness is a silent killer that affects one in three seniors over the age of 65 — a number that jumps to half for those older than 85, according to a 2015 study on the effects of social isolation.
The problem is especially bad for older men, who are 10 percent less likely than women to keep up with extended family and friends, a British study found.
Glenn Sears had these facts in mind when he worked with other volunteers to start the Hawaii Men’s Shed Association, a community-based nonprofit aimed at improving senior health through socialization, community involvement and workmanship.
Every Wednesday and Saturday from 9 a.m. to noon, some of the group’s 47 members assemble in a warehouse on Pier 19 at Honolulu Harbor to tinker and talk story.
The interior is like something out of a high school carpentry class: tools lie helter-skelter on all surfaces, bikes and furniture projects are stacked to one side, and the sounds of whirring and banging merge with laughter and conversation.
“If you want to come and work you can do that, and if you just want to talk story and drink coffee — you can do that too,” said Jerry Taniyama, 70, the group’s secretary. “We call it a safe zone for seniors.”
Members work on projects such as restoring abandoned bicycles and building furniture and playhouses. Some of their products are requested by paying customers, others are donated to charitable organizations.
A 2011 Baylor University study found that while women are more likely to socialize through face to face interaction, men are prone to communicating side by side in shared activities. Hence the association’s motto, “shoulder-to-shoulder.”
“It isn’t just coming to our own separate spaces and working; we’re helping each other and we’re working together,” said Bob Jewell, 62. “That’s the best part.”
“I’ve got friends who have retired and they sit and wait and watch television.” — Mick McAndrews
The nonprofit group uses activities like woodworking and welding to create an environment where seniors can get their hands dirty and talk about everything from the weather to the challenges of growing old.
“Where else can you discuss your prostate problems?” asked Sears, 83.
Studies have found that as men age, especially after retirement, they are more likely to become socially isolated and neglect their health.
Social isolation in seniors has been found to be a predictor of early death that surpasses obesity, according to a 2015 study.
“We see (problems with) cognitive impairment too, people who are isolated have a higher risk of developing dementia,” said Dr. Jeremy Chun, a geriatrician at Queen’s Medical Center. “Loneliness is a common problem for seniors, unfortunately.”
Mick McAndrews, the association’s president, said that most social groups for seniors on the island have mostly female members and engage in activities that he doesn’t connect with, like lei making and line dancing.
“I’ve got friends who have retired and they sit and wait and watch television,” said McAndrews, 68. “(The Shed) gives a guy a choice other than just sitting around.”
Sears said that he got the idea to start the shed in 2015 after reading a magazine article about the international community-based health initiative.
He said that he was looking for a way to continue making things when his wife didn’t want him messing up the house.
“When I read the article in the Rotary Club magazine I thought, this is what I’ve been looking for,” said Sears, a retired engineer and engineering professor.
The Australian Men’s Shed Association started the movement in 1997 as the result of a medical conference on the health of older men.
The Australian government came to the conclusion that a public health outreach effort was needed to remedy the problem of isolation within its older male population, according to Caroline Kunitake, a volunteer grant writer for the Hawaii Men’s Shed Association.
The organization has expanded to other countries including Finland, New Zealand and Canada. The Hawaii chapter is the first in the United States.
“We’ve got an airline pilot, an attorney, a dentist, a medical practitioner — we’re people from all different walks of life. There’s no status here, we’re all equal.” — Jerry Taniyama
All chapters are required to operate as nonprofit community groups. The Hawaii chapter is currently working on two philanthropic projects; one restoring abandoned bikes and donating them, the other a 6-foot wooden playhouse that they plan on giving to a children’s organization on the island.
Despite its name and central mission, the group is open to women and young adults. It currently has three female members, one of whom is in her 30s and is considered the “tech expert” of the group.
“We’ve got an airline pilot, an attorney, a dentist, a medical practitioner — we’re people from all different walks of life,” Taniyama said. “There’s no status here, we’re all equal.”
The Men’s Shed finds members through a craigslist ad and by word of mouth. It’s already in its third temporary location despite only being established in April of 2016. Its last headquarters was in a warehouse near Sand Island and the group has struggled to find a permanent home.
“It takes a lot of work to make these spaces ready to work in,” Sears said. “Having a permanent place to stay would be very helpful.”
The Shed’s current location was provided by the Department of Transportation’s Harbors Division and is only guaranteed for the next six to 12 months.
“They’re really looking for a bigger, long-term facility to work out of,” Kunitake said.
While living in a family setting can do a lot to prevent loneliness, having relatives around doesn’t necessarily mean seniors are staying active.
“When there’s work I work, otherwise I’d just be around the house feeding my fish,” said David Horen, 70, a member who lives with his wife. “The Men’s Shed gives me purpose.”
“Two years ago I had maybe three friends and now I have 30.” — Glenn Sears
Ron Berman, 72, sustained back and brain injuries when he fell off a roof on a construction job about five years ago. He had trouble talking and following conversations.
“I came here to be with other guys my age and I eventually became able to talk fairly well,” Berman said. “It made me feel like I had a little more hope.”
Sears said the quality of his life has improved significantly since starting the Men’s Shed last year.
“Two years ago I had maybe three friends and now I have 30,” Sears said. “I feel so much better now than I did a couple of years ago.”