There’s a do-it-yourself movement that’s been spreading across the United Kingdom, but it’s not led by artisan hipsters or first-time homeowners.
It’s part of the country’s nationwide campaign to address loneliness, and experts think it may hold some important clues for fixing a tricky and potentially life-threatening problem.
In a community workshop near the center of the English town of Frome, Tony Hopkins works with a jigsaw.
Hopkins, a 78-year-old retired engineer, has lived in the area since the 1960s, but he was never big on neighborhood socializing. Especially after meeting the love of his life, Glennis, when he was well into middle age
“She was absolutely gorgeous. She was brilliant,” Hopkins says. “She was the best thing that happened to me in me life. I had to wait 58 years to meet her, but after that, we had a brilliant time.”
Tony and Glennis spent the early years of his retirement vacationing in an RV in some of the country’s most beautiful spots. When Glennis died two and a half years ago, Tony was left with a heartbreak that wouldn’t go away.
“I’m very lucky in a sense because if I hadn’t had such a good time with Glenn and she wasn’t such a lovely person, I wouldn’t feel how I feel,” Hopkins says.
Looking for a way to fill his time, Tony joined the Frome Men’s Shed, where a small platoon of mostly retired men take on community projects like rehabbing park benches or building scooter racks for the local primary school.
Shed organizer John Young, a retired crime scene investigator, explains the shed also has the not-so-secret purpose of being a get-together for a demographic group that usually wouldn’t go for that sort of thing.
He says that unlike women, who often seem to be more comfortable relating face-to-face, many men do better shoulder-to-shoulder.
“You get a group of men together. Nobody says anything,” Young says. “You put a broken lawn mower in the middle of them, and they’ll all attack it to see how it’s repaired. And they’ll all start talking.”
Since the shed movement started in the U.K. about six years ago, more than 400 community-organized sheds have sprung up around the country. The health effects haven’t been rigorously studied, but surveys show that participating in sheds reduces depression and increases satisfaction with community and with life.
The success of sheds and similar programs prompted the U.K. to start its national loneliness campaign. And by studying them, researchers think they’ve cracked a code for fixing loneliness in other places.
Getting at the root
Troost Avenue is infamous as one of Kansas City’s great dividing lines, separating the black and white sides of the city.
Gerald Watson grew up near 31st and Troost and watched the community decline after white flight.
“It was rough,” Watson says. “After the years went by, people just started moving out. You know, we had drug dealers. It was actually really terrible. Everybody was eye for an eye.”
For two decades, the nonprofit Reconciliation Services hosted free Friday night dinners at 31st and Troost. But a few years ago organizers like Father Justin Matthews started a community conversation to find a better approach to combating poverty and neighborhood decline.
“We’re been throwing money and programs at those problems for years,” Matthews says. “We believe that we have to do more than address the symptoms. We have to get at the root.”
That can be an important first step in piercing the veil of loneliness, according to researcher Clare Gardiner, a senior research fellow at the University of Sheffield who’s compared the effectiveness of different loneliness interventions among older people.
She says the programs that reduce feelings of loneliness the most are those created by and for communities, as opposed to one-size-fits-all approaches.
“There can be a bit of a paternalistic, top-down approach saying, ‘We’ve made this intervention, and we believe it’s appropriate for you,’ without actually involving people in that and making sure that those decisions are made at a more local level,” Gardiner says.
The Troost conversations led to the creation of Thelma’s Kitchen, a weekday luncheonette at 31st and Troost Avenue in Kansas City, where customers pay what they can. Customers who can’t pay can volunteer to work instead.
The restaurant caters to and is mostly run by a mix of neighbors, homeless people and volunteers, including Bryon Hayes, who first came here looking for a meal when he was homeless.
Hayes became a Thelma’s Kitchen regular and was eventually hired as a volunteer coordinator.
He says that, in an area of town that has lost a lot of safe public spaces, eating and working at the restaurant gives a lot of people a much-needed opportunity.
“It’s interacting with people,” Hayes says. “Learning how to talk to people. Learning people skills. That’s a big thing this day and age.”
Psychologists say that small, positive interactions with neighbors or even strangers – what they call “weak ties” – can add up to greater happiness and even slow mental decline in older people.
Laura Ferguson, executive director of the Campaign to End Loneliness, explains that her British nonprofit encourages people to seek out small interactions every day.
“I think the beauty of the way that we connect as human beings is that we can find really deep joy in a moment of connection – to nod to someone, to smile at someone, exchange a moment with someone, whether they know them or not,” Ferguson says.
Perhaps surprisingly, it turns out that lots of approaches can help people feel less lonely. That includes interventions that don’t significantly increase social interaction, such as meditation or cognitive behavioral therapy, where feelings of loneliness are deeply internalized.
But researcher Clare Gardiner says some of the biggest effects seem to happen when people are working together with their hands.
“Those sort of activities where you’re producing something tend to be more successful than more passive activities. So men’s sheds are a really nice example of that, where people come together, and they will work together and produce something physical as part of that activity,” Gardiner says.
At Thelma’s Kitchen, that’s making food.
“It brings me a lot of joy to see other people enjoy the food that I made,” says Sarah Tepikian, who runs the front of the house and does food preparation. “Because the same people are coming every day, you’re thinking, ‘Oh, Rudy’s gonna love this, what I’m making right now.’ You think about that.”
A year after opening, Thelma’s Kitchen now averages about 120 customers a day.
It’s a busy place, but just a small corner of a city that’s changing quickly due to its growing population and urban revitalization.
Father Justin Matthews says he’s excited about the possibilities of rebuilding communities in Kansas City, but he also worries that issues like gentrification and economic inequity could leave a lot of people out.
“We’ve got an opportunity here to do something earth shattering, but also something that is healing at a deep level,” Matthews says. “The question is, are we going to take that opportunity? Are we going to choose to be neighbors? Not just through proximity, but with great intentionality, choose to take care of one another as neighbors should do?”
In the town of Frome, community members made up their minds about just such questions six years ago, when they decided to work to build their community connections network.
Today in this small town many residents take part in several different clubs or classes every week, including the Men’s Shed. It’s where Tony Hopkins recently got help from other shed members to build a small boat named Glennis, in memory of his late partner and their adventures together.
Sitting alongside John Young and other shed members, Tony Hopkins says the shed gave him a new start in Frome.
“More or less, I come on a Thursday, and I’ve got 30 friends,” Hopkins says. “And I mean friends. John’s turned out to be me best friend that I could wish for.”
Health experts are hoping that recreating similar community-building in other places could be transformational, not just among isolated neighbors and towns, but across entire countries.
Editor's note: This is the last part of “Loneliness Is Killing You,” a five-part series on the health effects of loneliness and social isolation. KCUR reporter Alex Smith traveled to the United Kingdom to see how that nation is addressing the problem and what lessons the United States can learn from it. This reporting was made possible in part by a fellowship sponsored by the Association of Health Care Journalists and supported by The Commonwealth Fund.
Alex Smith is a health reporter for KCUR. You can reach him by email at email@example.com