Women’s sheds offer older Australians a place to meet and learn new skills

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“Just do a little pruning [carving] today was a lot of fun,” she says.

Ms McLellan is one of dozens of women to join Western Australia’s first women’s shed – a place where women of all ages can connect and develop skills in the Perth suburb of Scarborough.

She says a chronic shoulder after many years of nursing means she’s unlikely to come out of retirement just yet, but she found the experience “empowering”.

Isabelle McLellan making crafts at the Stirling Women's Shed

Isabelle McLellan is perfecting her skills at the Stirling Women’s Shed. Credit: SBS/Rachel Cary

“Throughout my life, I have always sought advancement, not just to better my life, but to better the lives of others,” says Ms. McLellan.

And that’s what this growing movement for women is all about.

After a 10-year campaign, the community non-profit has opened its first temporary shed in the Scarborough Community Hub, run by the City of Stirling. Women’s shacks are already well established and the movement is growing in other states.

Elizabeth Re, campaigner and councilor for the town of Stirling, says: “A lot of women have come to me and said their husbands are dead or missing, and they don’t have a lot of men in their life. They wanted to be able to fix things, like hammer a nail in the wall or hang a picture.”

Stirling City Councilor Elizabeth Re standing in front of a building

Elizabeth Re, Stirling Town Councillor. Credit: SBS/Rachel Cary

“Unfortunately, many women in their 50s and 60s didn’t really learn these skills in school. They were told ‘don’t touch a hammer, it’s a man’s job’. Yet many don’t have enough money to bring in a tradesman and pay $100 to put a nail on the wall, to hang a picture of their grandchildren.

“When we first posted a review on social media, we got 2,000 likes in one day, one day. These women are out there, wanting to learn skills and be more empowered.

According to its website: “The goal of a women’s shed is to reduce isolation, champion independence, and amplify intergenerational collaboration, mentorship, and socially embedded connection while building skills and community. “.

Three women stand next to a table with woodworking tools.

Leslie Ray (center) teaches Isabelle McLellan (left) and Elisa Slaven (right) how to prune in the women’s shed. Credit: SBS/Rachel Cary

Leslie Ray helped teach carpentry skills at the women’s shed.

“I feel very passionate about helping to build the community. I think women are very capable and often don’t get a chance to work with tools, or they have an interest but don’t know how to where to start.

“You could help women who have lost their husbands or brothers or people who traditionally do all this work.

“I’ve worked with tools with kids in kindergarten through to 90s. So any age can benefit from learning how to use tools…Other people like the doing it for fun, for socializing. It’s a great outlet for mental health.”

Women live longer

Age Discrimination Commissioner Dr Kay Patterson welcomes the recent expansion.

“I hope when I retire there will be a women’s shed near my home,” she says.

“I’ve always been a fan of men’s sheds as a place where men can go to talk about their health or other issues, and women need the same.

“Women live relatively longer than men and often end up in retirement with less savings. In fact, women between the ages of 60 and 64 have about 17% less superfood than men of the same age.”

Age Discrimination Commissioner, Dr Kay Patterson.

Age Discrimination Commissioner, Dr Kay Patterson. Credit: Provided Human Rights Commission

The former senator says isolation is a major issue for all older people – especially women – and the impacts have been compounded during COVID-19.

Of those who lost their jobs during the pandemic, she says older people took twice as long to find a new job: about 48 weeks compared to about 24 weeks for a younger person.

Older women applying for jobs also face discrimination in the job market, she says.

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“Older women are more likely than older men to be perceived as having outdated skills, being too slow to learn new things, or unable to provide satisfying work.”

Dr. Patterson understands the challenges that many women face in becoming independent. After leaving school at 15, she then ran a small business and returned to study as a middle-aged student, eventually completing a doctorate in psychology and a degree in education at Monash University in Victoria.

Inside the doorway of the temporary home of the Stirling Women's Shed, with carpentry tools hanging from a sheet of wood attached to a wall.

The Stirling Women’s Shed is looking for permanent accommodation. Credit: SBS/Rachel Cary

She says the number of homeless older women increased by more than 30% between 2011 and 2016.

“Of 400,000 homeless people in Australia today, around 150,000 are older Australians. And there are far more women than men.

“Social housing will not be the solution for the large number of older Australians as the population ages,” she says.

“In the past, if a couple was in a bad marriage and the husband died, the wife inherited the house. Now, more and more couples are divorcing and many women are finding themselves on the wrong end financially.

Dr. Patterson urges young people to start planning financially for retirement earlier in their working life.

“In 1976, there were 122 people aged 100. Today Australia has over 4,500 centenarians and by 2040, which is not that far away, there will be over 40,000.

“So it’s absolutely vital that people, and especially young people, start planning for a 100-year lifespan.”

Elisa Slaven sitting at a wooden outdoor table

Elisa Slaven perfects herself on legal subjects. Credit: SBS/Rachel Cary

Elisa Slaven is 63 years old, married and has two adult children. She recently joined the Stirling Women’s Shed.

“I’m retired and haven’t been able to travel for the past few years due to COVID, so with some spare time I decided to join the shed,” she says.

And it’s not just the woodwork that’s on offer.

“Last week we learned about the wills and next week we will do the power of attorney. After Easter, we learn about guardianships,” she says.

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For older migrant and refugee women, join a shed can also help in learning English, as well as new skills such as sewing, carpentry or other practical lessons.

Councilor Ms Re hopes to find a self-contained space in Perth for a permanent women’s shed in the near future.

“If we actually have a very large building, then we can have more women doing different activities on one site, at different times of the day or night during the week and on weekends.”

Ms. McLellan also hopes so: “It’s a very nice group. It is a dynamic and united community that we need very much in this world.

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