Future List 2022: Kevin Ford is harnessing the energy and skills of retired men
People & Places

Future List 2022: Kevin Ford is harnessing the energy and skills of retired men

“I learned a lesson early in life that old people have lots to give.” 

That revelation came to Kevin Ford when he was a young entrepreneur struggling to launch a tech company. He had placed a classified ad looking for help and was soon flooded with applications from retired men who were feeling forgotten. They were thrilled to work a few hours a week at Ford’s small company. He credits them with stabilizing cash flow and propelling the company to success.

“They have wisdom, perspective, and connections,” he says. “That, more than anything, saved my first businesses.”

He didn’t know it then, but what he learned all those years ago foreshadowed his current enthusiasm for a growing social trend that is taking root in Ottawa: the Men’s Shed movement. Members are called Shedders. Despite the name, they don’t actually hang out in sheds, but rather meet in community workshops or multi-purpose buildings.

Mentioning Men’s Sheds often causes frowns, even giggles and jokes. Perhaps the term sounds like some misogynist group from the last century? Men’s Sheds, though, are not about gender politics. The goal is addressing serious social issues that plague older men, such as loneliness, depression, and suicide. Some groups welcome women and people of all ages, but the goal is to get older men engaged. Shedders not only get together for companionship, but to use their skills for community projects, ranging from building birdhouses and picnic tables to raising money for charity.

“The infrastructure that exists today is not serving men. Not because [social agencies] don’t care, but because men are idiots,” says Ford with his penchant for self-deprecating levity. “Men won’t join them or take advantage of them because we don’t ask for help.” 

The Men’s Shed movement started in Australia before spreading to the United Kingdom and beyond. There are now an estimated 60 Men’s Sheds in Canada.

Barbara McMillan, a coordinator with the United Way in British Columbia, is spearheading a Canada-wide push to increase the number of Men’s Sheds. She recently travelled to Ottawa for meetings with Ford and other advocates. “Absolutely, the movement is going to grow,” she says. “It’s really been a well-kept secret here in Canada, but that is going to change.”

Ford and a few other volunteers established the city’s first Men’s Shed right before the pandemic hit. Its 35 members have been meeting either at Ford’s spacious home or online by Zoom. Bill Logan, 81, finds membership stimulating. “I’m associating with interesting people who have had marvelous experiences that keep me engaged in what’s happening around the world, and who are introducing me to interesting subjects I had not thought about before.”

Ian Jefferson, 60, joined about a year ago. “I think it’s a great idea for support, particularly mental health, for men. It’s really an interesting concept of self-support and I think it’s actually better than formal medical approaches to keeping people active and healthy, which is the key.”

Members get together primarily for social and educational activities, but Ford is now planning a second Ottawa shed that will be more focused on workshop projects. “I would love to have a retired welder teaching former electricians and teaching us mere mortals how to do things while working on projects for the benefit of the community,” says Ford.

Ford is 69, but looks at least 10 years younger. He has plenty of skills to share, too. His home-based company, Onshoring Ventures, manufactures products ranging from toilets for mobility-challenged dogs to fitted cases for radio-controlled aircraft.

His multi-car garage is filled with all kinds of machines for vacuum molding, metal, and woodworking. When he gives visitors tours, everyone is fascinated by one item in particular: a homemade flight simulator that looks like it came from the set of a Star Wars movie. Ford says the company is less about making money and more about promoting the value of low-volume manufacturing, which he says will bring more jobs to Canada.

Left: Kevin Ford with his award from MacWorld Magazine. Right: portrait by Christian Lalonde

While in his thirties and forties, Ford gained a reputation as a high-tech visionary establishing companies on a shoestring budget. In 2007, Parliant, one of those companies, received the Product of Year Award from the Ottawa Centre for Research and Innovation (now known as Invest Ottawa). That was preceded by an editor’s choice award from Macworld Magazine. He often crossed paths with Steve Jobs, the late founder of Apple. 

Before the age of fifty, Ford had already made enough money to stop working and live comfortably for the rest of his life. Early retirement didn’t last long. He soon missed the interactions and friendships that come with staying engaged, the same motivations that underpin the Men’s Shed movement of today.

“Our social circles were mostly tied up with who we worked with, so when you leave an organization and go home, it’s lonely,” he says.

Ford says he was saved from that same fate because he was able to count on his family for support. He is still married to his high school sweetheart, Debra. She encouraged him to get involved in Men’s Sheds after hearing a news item about them on the radio. The couple have three adult sons and, so far, one grandchild.

Ford’s own good fortune has clearly not blinded him to the realities of other men who become socially isolated later in life. “It is a very depressing time and we need to step in and help that,” he adds. 

According to Statistics Canada, about 11 people commit suicide every day in Canada. From their forties to their eighties and beyond, men are three times more likely to take their own lives than women. However, as Ford has noted, it’s common knowledge that men are often reluctant to seek help. “Loneliness leads to depression, depression leads to unhealthy activities, and that leads to health issues earlier than they need be,” he says.

There is growing research suggesting Men’s Sheds can reduce self-destructive behavior. In a 2021 study, one of the anonymous participants reported: “I’m not even drinking a quarter of what I used to. During the day I don’t touch it.If the Men’s Shed wasn’t here, I wouldn’t be here to tell the story. I’d have drunk myself to death.”

Ford is now part of a team working to bring a more business-like foundation to the movement. He co-founded the Ontario organization and was elected as one of seven directors of the Canadian Men’s Shed Association. While some Shedders dislike the idea of a formal structure, Ford says it is needed because serious money is now flowing from government and private sources for expansion and support. “We have to get our act together,” he says. “We have to get organized. We have to be able to responsibly spend the funds.”

HelpAge Canada, an Ottawa-headquartered organization, is in charge of distributing some of the money that has been allocated. Nicole Perry of HelpAge says they want to see the movement grow.

“We are the conduit for start-up grants, for project grants,” says Perry. “We are here to support the movement; we want it to expand across Canada [and] provide resources and capacity building for local sheds. It’s really about supporting a grassroots community for the movement.”

Ford’s vision is for the Ottawa area to be dotted with Men’s Sheds, ideally all of them within walking distance of the Shedders. “If you look at the statistics in Ireland, per capita, Ottawa should have 66 sheds in it.” Six sheds would be great – more than one or two.

Time will tell if this comes true, but one thing is clear: Kevin Ford is giving it his best shot.