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Portrush man Stuart found solace in Men’s Shed after wife died from dementia

Portrush man Stuart McNicholl was devastated when his wife of 48 years passed away in June this year, but going to a newly opened Men's Shed, where he teaches other members to play the guitar, has helped ease the pain. Laurence White reports

Portstewart Men's Shed has only been open for 18 months but the National Lottery-funded project has already become a lifeline for many men who come along each week to play the guitar, carve wood, or just have a cup of tea and a chat. For one of its newest members, Stuart McNicholl, being part of the community at the shed helped him get through the most difficult time in his life.

Stuart (69) met the love of his life Marlene when he was only 12 years old. They were inseparable all their lives until Marlene passed away in June. But the support and friendship from the men at Portstewart Men's Shed has made every day since a little bit easier.

"I miss her every second, she was my wee dote. I thought she was beautiful from the moment I met her," says Stuart who grew up in Portrush.

"I was at a dance with the Sea Cadets and it was the first time girls were allowed to come too. In walked Marlene, who had only recently moved to Portrush, and I just knew I had to dance with her. Luckily she liked me too and we spent lots of time together when we were young, but we were just kids so we weren't serious until we turned 17. Four years later we were married."

Stuart and Marlene had their son Steven a year later. They had a busy life together juggling their careers, family life and a close group of friends who they socialised with regularly. Marlene was a successful hairdresser and Stuart was an electrician and then a technician for Guinness until he was forced to retire at 54 due to a bad back. But it was when they were in their 60s that the first indications of Marlene's illness became noticeable.

"I called her the pocket rocket - she was only 5ft 1in and was always going at 100 miles an hour. She was so full of life, even at 60, I still can't believe the difference in her in 10 years," Stuart recalls.

"I noticed her memory going in her early 60s and she was diagnosed with dementia at 66. It broke her heart hearing that diagnosis and it was so hard for everyone around her to accept. I cared for Marlene in our house for three years but it got increasingly difficult so my son reached out for more help."

Marlene was admitted to Holywell Hospital in Antrim when she was 69. She was there for 10 months and had just turned 70 when she passed away.

"When Marlene was in hospital I wasn't doing anything else apart from driving back and forth to visit her. A social worker there suggested I visit Portstewart Men's Shed for a bit of company. I didn't want to go at first but after a few months of encouragement I gave it a go. As soon as I walked through the door I felt at ease and I started coming a few times a week."

Portstewart Men's Shed is run by Be Safe Be Well which received a £500,000 grant from the Big Lottery Fund, raised by National Lottery players. The group opened Portstewart Men's Shed and is in the process of setting up a new shed in Coleraine as well as extending opening hours at the group's existing Forglen and Limavady sheds. These sites provide a space for men to meet, take part in activities, learn and share skills, and receive support.

It was Stuart's love of music and talent for playing the guitar which helped him settle into the shed and his music has been an inspiration to others.

"There were guys there who I recognised from years ago and we quickly became friends again. One of them, Mark, was teaching the tin whistle and we started talking about music. I play the guitar so Mark asked me to bring it down and play some music for them. It's great to hear the guys sing along or tap their feet when I'm playing and it's made others join the shed too and I've been teaching them a few chords. I've always played the guitar at friends' parties that Marlene and I would go to and she would dance and sing along. Six weeks after I joined the shed my wee Marlene passed away. My heart is still breaking and if you knew her your heart would be breaking now too. I couldn't have coped over the summer if it wasn't for my friends here."

Stuart comes from a big family of six sisters and two brothers who have been by his side, and Marlene's five sisters have been very supportive too, but his friends from the shed have given him that extra boost. It took Stuart a while to come back to the shed after Marlene's funeral but the guys didn't lose touch.

"I kept getting calls from the boys and they came and checked on me at the house. They were worried about me, which was comforting. I have my son and my siblings, but I appreciated the support from the guys at the shed so much.

"When I come to the shed now the boys still put an arm around me and ask how I am. It's nice to come somewhere that people care about you and some may have gone through something similar. Everyone here has a different story, they could have health problems, issues with loved ones, or just want some company. All my life I've found that men don't talk about their problems, but the shed is different."

It was two years ago that Be Safe Be Well received the funding from the Big Lottery Fund to expand their work and develop more Men's Sheds. They are supporting men aged over 25 to cope better with issues including bereavement, poor mental health, physical disability or mild learning disability. The men are involved at every stage of the project and are committed to making it a shared space for all members.

The project is making a big difference for men in the area as Catherine Taylor, director of Be Safe Be Well, explains: "I think this project is life-saving. Men who come to our sheds are often in a low place with their mental health and some have suicidal thoughts, but being a member here, getting access to support, and feeling part of our community can help them turn that around.

"Maybe they have been isolated due to retirement or bereavement, but the common factor tends to be loneliness and finding themselves going from having productive lives to feeling hopeless. So coming to the shed can help them find a new meaning in life and a place where they belong.

"The shed is a natural environment for men to talk while they are doing activities. We have a phrase 'Men don't talk eye to eye, they talk shoulder to shoulder' which is how they start talking about their issues. Once they build up their friendships and find camaraderie through sharing their problems, then they start talking eye to eye.

"We make sure we have the right support for them too. We work with support groups and medical professionals to provide services like counselling when the men are ready to use it. We've had many men who have walked through those doors who are going through a journey of loss or depression and after some time here they have improved their mental health and have a new positive outlook on life."

Stuart wants to encourage other men to find out about their local Men's Shed.

"I couldn't recommend it enough to other men in the area. Not only are the people fantastic, but there are computers, you can play pool, do woodwork, play music, cook and we're going to do art classes soon," said Stuart.

"Going home to an empty house is awful though. I see Marlene everywhere in that house. So meeting up with the guys outside the shed has helped with that and we're organising Friday night music sessions at the shed which are open to everyone.

"Marlene would be glad to know I'm going to the shed. She loved music and socialising. It's only been around six months since I started coming here but it's been a lifeline to me."

To find out more about Be Safe Be Well visit their website: http://besafebewell.co.uk/

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