UIU Fulbright Scholar ‘sheds’ light on men’s organization

A 2018 study abroad experience to Ireland with students from Upper Iowa University has changed the life of Dr. Melinda Heinz forever. It was then that the UIU professor was introduced to the world of men’s sheds.

An international phenomenon that has grown to thousands of clubs stretching across the globe, a men’s shed consists of older men who enjoy sharing their own, and pursuing new, interests and skills as a group. While not working on constructive projects, the members oftentimes further connect with each other over a pot of tea.

“I couldn’t stop thinking about men’s sheds when I returned home, Heinz said. “I wanted to find a way to come back to Ireland to study them in more detail.”

A native of Dougherty, Iowa, Heinz is in her 10th year of teaching at Upper Iowa University. This past year was undoubtedly one of her most unique and eventful. First, the U.S. Department of State and the J. William Fulbright Foreign Scholarship Board announced in April 2021 that the UIU associate professor of psychology had been named a Fulbright U.S. Scholar.

Dr. Melinda Heinz at shed

Dr. Melinda Heinz at shed

The Fulbright Program is the flagship international educational exchange program sponsored by the U.S. government and is designed to forge lasting connections between the people of the United States and the people of other countries, counter misunderstandings and help people and nations work together toward common goals. Since its establishment in 1946, the Fulbright Program has enabled more than 390,000 dedicated and accomplished students, scholars, artists, teachers and professionals of all backgrounds to study, teach and conduct research; exchange ideas; and find solutions to shared international concerns.

As part of her Fulbright scholarship, Heinz chose to conduct research exploring how men’s sheds promote meaning and purpose in older adulthood. She also gave several community talks on a person’s well-being in older adulthood.

Although started in Australia, more men’s sheds are currently found in Ireland than anywhere else in the world. Thus, the reason Heinz decided to do her research on the Emerald Isle. Over four months in early 2022, Heinz conducted 37 interviews and visited 14 different men’s sheds in County Limerick, Ireland.

Men in a shed as a group

Men in a shed as a group

To make the interview process a more informal and comfortable situation for the men, Heinz started her research by sitting down and discussing the goals of her study over a cup of tea with men’s shed members. During the interviews, Heinz was trying to answer the questions of how participating in men’s sheds creates a sense of purpose in the lives of older men, understand why men continue to go to men’s sheds and explore the activities men are engaged in at the sites.

Heinz’s studies revealed the importance of these men’s sheds and that they provided these men with crucial mental health benefits.

“I loved the site visits and interviews with the men,” said Heinz. “Most of the men spoke about the socialization benefits and how important it was for them to maintain contact and friendships in older adulthood. Many others spoke about reduced levels of loneliness since becoming a men’s shed member and said that visiting the shed gave their lives more direction and purpose.”

Heinz believed the research was one of the best experiences of her life because of the welcoming and exciting attitudes of the men she encountered during the study.

One of her most cherished interactions during the study came from the rural village of Galbally, where a man offered to show her some local sites and invited her to have lunch with him and his wife. After spending the day with the man, Heinz discovered an interesting fact about him.

“Interestingly enough, when this man was in his 20s, he worked on a cattle farm in Kansas and was so pleased to meet someone from the Midwest,” said Heinz.

“There is such a focus on inclusion in the men’s sheds,” Heinz explained. “The men go out of their way to welcome new members and get to know what skill sets and strengths they have so that they can be used to benefit and improve the shed. This openness, inclusion and intentionality about making people feel valued and useful was so nice to see.”

Also of significance was that she was able to share the experience with her family. Her oldest daughter was even able to attend a junior infant class in Ireland, which is equivalent to kindergarten in the U.S.

“Without my family being along, I wouldn’t have had insight into the primary education system,” Heinz noted. “I wouldn’t have known my daughter’s teacher (múinteoir in Irish) or her classmates’ parents. It was also wonderful to be able to travel around the country together, taking in new experiences and learning more about the people and culture of Ireland.”

Now that the study is complete, Heinz plans to use the information in several of her UIU classes, including Adjustment, Death and Dying, and Psychology of Aging. She also plans to take students abroad to Ireland in May of 2023, where she wants to have students visit several men’s sheds.

“I hope students can see that creating meaningful opportunities for older adults is important and that there is so much life to live after retirement,” said Heinz.

She also wants to use this experience to encourage students to seek out similar opportunities that Heinz did through the Fulbright program and allow them to study topics they are passionate about.

“I hope students will see that creating these opportunities doesn’t have to be difficult. It can be as simple as engaging in conversations with older adults over a cup of tea,” said Heinz.

What is a men’s shed?
According to the Irish Men’s Shed Association,a men’s shed is a community-based project where men can come together to learn, share skills and make long-lasting friendships together.

The men’s shed movement was first founded in Australia in the 1980s and has since expanded to other countries, including Ireland, the UK, America, Canada, Iceland and Estonia, to name a few. Ireland has become one of the leading nations for men’s sheds in recent years, with the most sheds per capita. Currently, there are over 450 sheds in Ireland, with at least 10,000 men visiting a shed every week.

All sheds are independent and self-autonomous, and the range of activities carried out by each shed differs from the next. Most sheds engage in activities such as woodworking, gardening, carpentry and community work. However, there are more special-interests sheds that focus on things like music, fishing and restoration work.

There are many reasons to join a men’s sheds: for example, someone who, after retiring, still has a lot to offer and may want to share their skills with other men and maybe someone else is seeking a friendship.

Men’s sheds are for more than just woodwork or gardening; they are places where men can find meaning and purpose, where a friend is always there. In a men’s shed, they always say the greatest tool they have is the kettle, because there’s nothing more powerful than a cup of tea and a chat.

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