Loneliness has been called the ‘silent epidemic’ and it is breathtaking how quickly and insidiously loneliness can set in and clamp itself to a person’s life.
Britain and Ireland is suffering something of a loneliness epidemic at the moment, we are officially the loneliest country in the EU (according to the office for National Statistics) and one group in particular is deeply affected by this and that is men.
The north coast is no exception, however, thanks to a Big Lottery Fund People and Communities grant of £500,000, Be Safe, Be Well will be opening a new Men’s Shed in Portstewart next month offering men of all ages a point of contact for leisure, help, resources, skill-sharing, purpose, achievement and social interaction.
The new premises is familiar to many in the area as the haunt of many lovers of live music in the 80s and 90s. The former Spuds venue is undergoing a facelift as it is transformed ready to welcome the already increasing group of men from the popular seaside resort.
Catherine Taylor, Project Manager at Be Safe, Be Well who run similar projects in Limavady and Foreglen, spoke about the creation of the Portstewart Men’s Shed and the importance of the project.
“Our involvement was prompted by a partnership agreement and we joined forces with 22 men in Portstewart who wanted to create a Men’s Shed there, but, from their own admission, they lacked the drive regarding the funding and administration of it and they hadn’t the experience which they saw we had.
“Our research showed the need for the Men’s Shed in Portstewart. At the start we were a bit nervous about spreading our wings, however, we did considerable research on the ground and when we talked to the men I was amazed how little there was for them.
“We applied for a Big Lottery Fund’s People and Communities grant and thankfully we were successful which was wonderful because it enabled us to get this project off the ground.”
With the search on for suitable premises, Catherine and her team discovered that available property in the popular seaside town was at a premium.
“It’s been quite a journey,” said Catherine. “It was important to get the right premises. We discovered in Portstewart that it’s very, very hard to get real estate at all. We were really struggling to get anywhere suitable to rent and with 22 men already committed and numerous other enquiries, we knew we were going to have to build a really big shed.
“We eventually saw the property which was formerly Spuds nightclub so we grabbed it. Because it had been under utilised, had just been used for storage for almost 30 years and wasn’t in the best shape, the landlord was looking for a competitive rent and it was a big space so that was good news for us.
“We are delighted with the way things have progressed in Portstewart. We have been able to refurbish the building, totally rewiring, re-plumbing, and renovating the ceiling. Now we are just weeks away from completion and being able to open our doors to the men of Portstewart.
“However, for me the opening of the Men’s Shed isn’t the open of the building because so many of the men have been helping with the clearing out, the renovating and the painting work. They have invested their time because they see the vision and are so excited.
“They had all but given up on the idea of opening a Men’s Shed and were one meeting away from disbanding their group which would have been very sad. Getting the grant from the Big Lottery Fund was a dream come true for us and has made this Men’s Shed possible.”
Catherine who looks after two very successful Men’s Sheds in the Foreglen and Limavady area knows the difference being part of Men’s Shed can make to lives.
“What is lovely about the project is that the men have been brought together and they are from all different parts of the community who have been drawn together with the idea of creating a place to go that will reduce their isolation,” added Catherine.
“Men’s Shed is open to men from the age of 25 and upwards so you can see how that will work beautifully because you have younger men who are possibly a bit more vulnerable and they are walking into an environment of retired men who are just happy to help their community and have time to chat and help if needed.”
“Being part of Men’s Shed gives the men a purpose and many of them call it their family which is very touching. It’s about being able to come in and being able to have something as simple as a chat.
“We get all different types coming to us. You get men who will put the kettle on have a chat and wander off after a couple of hours, then you will get men who are involved in all the Men’s Shed activities and will throw themselves into the workshop and are there constantly.
“That’s what I like about it, everyone gets what they need out of Men’s Shed in terms of connecting with each other, community, breaking down the issues of depression, isolation, anxiety.
“Some of our guys are on a journey, some are going through really tough things in their personal life and what’s nice that this isn’t a caring environment per say in a clinical sense, but because its community they have that shoulder to shoulder conversation.
“In some more serious cases we have catalogued five instances were members of our Men’s Shed, thanks to the intervention of our staff, have been saved from suicide.
“Perhaps less serious but equally important we have seen men who have been able to take themselves off depression medication, we have seen men who have been totally socially isolated and have been rejected by society whether that is due to a mild learning disability or they have just fallen through the cracks.
“Each of their stories are unique and precious and we just say thank goodness they are here. Everyone contributes something to the shed.”
Thanks to players of the National Lottery men in Portstewart will soon have a shed to call their own as work on the building nears completion. However, the shed will also help benefit the wider community too.
“Most of these men are retired and living in Portstewart and this is a way of giving them something to do, sharing the skills they have acquired and reducing the isolation they feel,” said Catherine.
“There is also a great heart for the wider community which I like and this is already happening and we are getting a number of referrals from the Northern Trust via different organisations who help people live independently These could be men who may have brain injuries, mild disabilities or are living with mental health issues and they will come along and join our group.
“We are constantly amazed at the changes that happen to some of these men and it’s a privilege to be part of it and make an impact on them and their families’ lives.”