by Marty Leist, AMSA Events Co-ordinator
Being the Australian Men’s Shed Association (AMSA) Events co-ordinator, my role involved a large amount of travel and many visits to many sheds, right around the country. A true privilege.
When I was unceremoniously cut off at the proverbial knees by the pandemic (whose title I refuse to pronounce) these privileges were stripped and I miss them sorely. So, on a personal trip to Tamworth recently, I made time to drop into the Tamworth Men’s Shed for a quick sticky-beak, just for old times’ sake.
As it was an impromptu visit, it was hit-and-miss as to whether it would be open. Fortunately for me, even though it was not a scheduled Shed day, there just happened to be a committee member there at the time. After explaining to him that I was from AMSA he was more than happy to show me around.
I can’t explain the simple pleasure of stepping foot into a shed again after so long and experiencing the subtle smells of drying aquadhere, oil soaked swarf and the splendour of getting covered in sawdust.
I often describe sheds as ‘the same but different’. They are inherently diverse in their size, shape, activities and people — but comparable in their aims and outcomes as far as the mateship and comradery.
The Tamworth Shed had fully reopened under the basic restrictions that most sheds in New South Wales have at this time (limited numbers, spacing, masks and extra sanitising). But my guide informed me of one project that had to be temporarily scrapped.
It has since been able to run under a different capacity — and it’s a wonderful story.
Just weeks before the lockdowns began, a young and very enthusiastic recreation and activities coordinator from the local Bupa nursing home, Tarrah Bower (pronounced Tara), had approached the Men’s Shed.
She wanted to find a way for some residents to attend the shed and take part in some sort of activity, based around their limited physical and cognitive abilities.
In some cases there was dementia, cerebral palsy and/or just old age. She was introduced to Athol Latham, a 7-years-retired former industrial arts teacher and member of the Tamworth Men’s Shed.
The idea to have the participants attend the Shed and assemble pre-made wooden toys came to life.
Athol would prepare sections of the toys unassembled, for the new Shedders to assemble under his careful instruction at the Shed every Thursday.
For 3 weeks, the ‘Bupa Bus’ arrived on a Thursday morning with half a dozen extremely enthusiastic and eager workers who would engage in 3-4 hours of concentrated, fun and purposeful activity. They built a different project each week.
Until the pandemic. The timing was cruel for the residents. Just when they were getting a grasp of this new activity, it had to be ripped away. Of course, the Men’s Shed would also be closed indefinitely. Bloody COVID!
The irony of it all is that a movement that is built on combatting social isolation was now up against forced isolation.
But when you think about it, ‘isolating’ can be very different to ‘socially isolating.’ Especially if we are willing to step out of our comfort zone and think outside the square.
If the pandemic has taught us anything, it has been that technology (however you choose to consume it) can be your best friend if you use it to your advantage.
It has meant the difference between total incapacity to communicate with the outside world, or the ability to maintain a relatively solid level of interaction with others. Even if not physically.
A lifeline for so many of us.
This was something that Bupa was well aware of and during lockdown they purchased tablets (the ones with the screens, not the ones you swallow). They encouraged residents to get online and communicate with their families.
Months down the track, when NSW restrictions were lifted and many Sheds were able to reopen under strict conditions, it was a godsend for not only the members but their partners (who had just about had enough of their dearly beloveds at home 24/7).
Things started to reflect some sort of normality.
However, due to the cruel fact that the Bupa residents were at the highest risk of illness, there was absolutely no chance of them returning to the Shed to continue their prized work.
This was bitterly disappointing for the residents and heart-breaking for Tarrah, who had been elated to see the joy and new lease of life for the group of new Shedders.
So, Tarrah came up with a plan.
She went and saw Athol, asking could he prepare some more little projects (as he was doing before) and package them up so she could take them back to the nursing home. There she set up a room where the residents could gather and work on their projects.
But without Athol’s in-person guidance, the participants had no idea what to do! So Tarrah set up a large TV then and then took herself up to the Shed and hooked up a Zoom call with Athol. That way, he could still interact, converse and give instructions.
It has been going fantastically so far — the next best thing to being in the shed. The residents have made trucks, trains and wagons, and even a helicopter. Each project given its own personal touch by painting and decorating.
So much so, on 23 October they will hold ‘the Bupa Show’ and all residents will get to vote on the Shedders’ pieces with an award presented to the winner by the president of the Tamworth Mens Shed.