How a Men’s Shed in northern Alberta is helping guys tackle isolation and loneliness

If you ask Wayne Warner how old he is, he’ll tell you: “older than dirt!”

The good-natured 78-year-old has been fully retired for more than a decade. His career was in retail, but for him, he believes the work he is focused on now could keep other men alive a lot longer.

“Isolation is a disease, it kills people,” said Warner.

Warner gets emotional when he talks about loneliness after retirement.

“I’ve lost friends,” said a choked-up Warner, from Cold Lake, Alta.

“I’ve seen too many guys retire and not have a plan for retirement. They’ve either ended up sitting in their recliner watching TV all day and their next best friend becomes the bottle.

“It probably takes 10 years of life of ’em, so two or three years into retirement they’re dead.”

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Read more: ‘It broke my heart’: ER doctor aims to fight loneliness ‘epidemic’ amid COVID-19

Warner and a few of his friends decided guys in their community needed someplace to go — a hang out where they could talk.

Sure, there’s the local Tim Horton’s where you can meet for coffee and quilting clubs for women, but Warner said men don’t congregate in the same way. Sometimes what isn’t said is just as important.

“Men are different,” said Warner. “We have five men sitting somewhere, and you know, 10 words might pass between them. It’s a different thing for men and that’s why they become isolated.”

After researching Men’s Sheds in Australia, the group started to build the foundation for one in Cold Lake.

The Cold Lake Men’s Shed has been up and running in a truck bay since 2019. The program is under Age Friendly Cold Lake, a volunteer organization that tackles isolation in the community.

The Men’s Shed has a lounge with a pool table, but the biggest draw is the woodworking shop. Tools were donated or bought through a federal seniors grant and other fundraising events.

Some of the members had never held much more than a screwdriver, said Warner.

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“Now they’ve got something in their life to do,” he said.

“You’d be amazed at how many tips and tricks just one guy passes on to another.”

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The Cold Lake Men’s Shed has been running its drop-in program since 2019. Wayne Warner

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The Cold Lake Men’s Shed has been a lifeline to many in the community. Wayne Warner

Other Men’s Sheds in the province have been set up in Edmonton, Calgary and Camrose. Warner said the clubs are in the process of forming an Alberta Men’s Shed Association.

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The pandemic has been a challenge, as Men’s Sheds across the country have been forced to adapt to ongoing health restrictions.

At times, only a couple of men are allowed in the Cold Lake Men’s Shed. Still, Warner stressed having a project to focus on — like the Adirondack chairs they built — is a lifeline.

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Adirondack chairs made by Cold Lake Men’s Shed. Wayne Warner

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The Cold Lake Men’s Shed has hosted fundraisers to raise money for tools. Last winter the group raffled off an ice fishing shack. Wayne Warner

Warner is worried the constant stay-at-home message from health officials could be doing seniors more harm than good.

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“Maybe they don’t understand the restrictions and tend to just stay right in their homes and part of that is fear,” said Warner.

“There’s been nothing but fear come out of the pandemic.”

The Canadian Association for Retired Persons (CARP) said many seniors are dependent on friends and family to get them out of their homes — but the pandemic has led to even more isolation.

Read more: Many seniors struggle with loneliness. The pandemic has only made it worse

John Pollock, president of the London – St. Thomas, Ont., CARP chapter said mobility, financial situations and family circumstances play a huge part.

“I think it’s an incredible problem,” said Pollock. “I don’t think we have a whole lot of options. Once you become frail, if you’re not connected to the community through friends and family that are prepared to take you out, it’s a major issue.

“I have no restrictions on mobility and I have a pension but I’ve got nowhere to go.”

Pollock said like many other retirees, he is “erring on the side of caution” and choosing not to see a lot of people.

For those who don’t have a choice and are stuck at home, Pollock said more social worker supports and check-ins could help with isolation.

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Loneliness is a serious health issue.

A Statistics Canada report linked social isolation with a higher mortality rate in Canadian seniors — on par or greater than alcohol use, smoking and obesity.

The Men’s Shed in Cold Lake is open to younger men too.

Warner said even if you don’t want to talk, tinkering with tools and making something with your own hands could give a sense of purpose — or at the very least, keep someone busy.

“If we save one life, we’ve gained something.”

© 2021 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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