It's no secret that many older men face serious challenges when it comes to healthy social connections. Traditionally, women often maintain a family's social connections. If a man loses his wife through death or divorce, then staying connected can become a serious challenge. In the U.S. and the U.K., nearly 1 in 3 people who are older than 65 live alone; and in the U.S., half of those who are over 85 live by themselves.
Loneliness has become problematic for seniors, and a variety of researchers have discovered that feeling isolated can have almost twice the impact as obesity on an early death. According to John Cacioppo, co-author of "Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection," the ache of loneliness can be equivalent to physical pain.
Cacioppo has written that the increasing number of baby boomers who are facing retirement has created what he calls a "silver tsunami." And the more challenging issue for senior males is feeling isolated, especially those who spent decades interacting with colleagues and co-workers on a daily basis. He urges retirees — male and female — to stay in touch with their former co-workers, and make it a priority to interact with friends and family members.
In the U.K., the impact of loneliness on health became such a source of concern that the U.K. Department of Health helped sponsor The Campaign to End Loneliness. Here in the States, we have AARP; but on the other side of the Atlantic, Age UK has initiated a variety of programs designed to alleviate isolation among seniors. In London, a charity called Open Age sponsors over 380 activities each week, including book clubs, computer classes, current events discussion groups and exercise.
But one of the best anti-loneliness innovations is the Men's Sheds organization, which focuses on bringing older males together in a casual environment. It began in Australia back in 1998 with idea to replicate the feeling of a backyard shed, a traditional environment in which men would carry out various tasks, such as restoring furniture, fixing lawn mowers or other basic chores. The theory behind the movement was that social interaction, recreational activities and casual learning opportunities would reduce depression and feelings of isolation.
There are now more than 300 Men's Sheds scattered throughout the U.K. Woodwork seems to be the most popular activity, and the groups never have to worry about supplies because many widows donate their late husbands' tools, happy knowing that they will be put to good use rather than gather dust.
One interesting aspect of the Men's Sheds movement is that observers have discovered that women prefer to interact face to face, and men prefer to interact shoulder to shoulder. Spending time at a workbench or at desks placed next to one another provides this opportunity.
Keith Pearshouse, a 72-year-old retired school principal, moved from Norfolk, England, to London in 2007. He recognized that he was lonely and decided to visit the nearest Men's Shed, a 700-square-foot workshop in a local community center. He has since made new informal friendships and begun crafting small wooden objects, even though he has never worked with wood before.
Mike Jenn, also 72 years old, runs the Camden Town district shed in London and is also the chair of the U.K. Men's Sheds Association. A retired charity worker, Jenn told The New York Times: "We say, 'I can look after myself. I don't need to talk to anyone,' and it's a complete fallacy. Not communicating helps to kill us."
If there's not a Men's Shed where you live, perhaps this is the perfect time to think about starting one. After all, loneliness can be fatal, and friendships — even those that are casual, new and unstructured — can heal.
Marilyn Murray Willison has had a varied career as a six-time nonfiction author, columnist, motivational speaker and journalist in both the U.K. and the U.S. She is the author of The Self-Empowered Woman blog and the award-winning memoir "One Woman, Four Decades, Eight Wishes." She can be reached at www.marilynwillison.com. To find out more about Marilyn and read her past columns, please visit the Creators Syndicate webpage at www.creators.com.