60+ Shades of Grey

60+ Shades of Grey

Above: Men on the march, from left: Mike Skerrett (with Buddy), Roger Macgregor, Mike Howard, David Armstrong, David Milne, Lex Heinemann, Phillip Bate (with Humphrey), Neil Brunton, and John Armstrong.

This article was first published in The Courier-Mail on 14 June, 2014. This group of men are still meeting each morning for their walk, they still catch up with Heidi once a week, and they still get to the Gympie Races and the Tamworth Country Music Festival. And they are still loving life!

By Susan Prior

One steamy Tuesday evening, I find myself in a suburban scout hall stomping my way through a line-dancing class alongside a bunch of venerable boot-scooting, lid-dipping locals. With shining eyes and palpable enthusiasm, Mike Skerrett had asked me to join in with the Disgraceville Greys. He promised they will play Billy Ray Cyrus’s hit 'Achy Breaky Heart'. Attending a line-dancing class was never high on my bucket list, but how can I possibly refuse?

Mike Skerrett with Buddy.

So, you may be wondering, who exactly are the Disgraceville Greys? And should I even care about them? If you are retired, or eventually plan to, you may learn something from these men.

Imagine your working life coming to a close; you ease yourself into a long-anticipated retirement. It then dawns on you that your expectations of a golden, endless holiday may have been a tad fanciful. After all, you’ve only got three rose bushes, pruned last week, and you’ve completed the crossword by 9.00 am.

For many men retirement can be challenging. The work routine to which they have become inured over the years evaporates. Retirement can mean a major lifestyle change for which many are unprepared.

With retirement, the ensuing loneliness, isolation and purposelessness can lead to health problems. University of Chicago neuroscientist and psychologist John Cacioppo’s research into the effects of loneliness has demonstrated that feelings of isolation and social rejection can have detrimental effects on our thinking abilities and willpower. And, in fact, loneliness can be as damaging to our health and immune systems as obesity or smoking. Cacioppo claims that 'social relationships are fundamental to emotional fulfilment, behavioural adjustment, and cognitive function'.

The Disgraceville Greys, based in the Brisbane suburb of Graceville, from which they get their name, have come up with their own solution to keeping busy in retirement.

The Disgraceville Greys is no card-carrying, rule-ridden organisation, just an informal group that has grown organically over time. When I join them for coffee one morning they are obviously enjoying each other’s company, as evidenced by the badinage and repartee going back and forth across the café table. The quips flow easily, the one-liners are sharp, and hilarious. There may be no club rules, but they do have a motto, “Laughter is the best medicine” and they have it in abundance.

Mostly retired – but still tinkering – their boyish exuberance belies the fact that they are all well into their 60s and beyond. They enjoy their lives. Whatever they are taking, I want some.

They tell me that the group’s original members began walking together back in 2004 – they think. They met while walking their dogs. Their memories are hazy, a little blurred, so they can’t tell me exactly when, but, as they say, they are getting on and the details escape them. Back then there were just the three: Mike Skerrett, David Milne and David Rouse.

After their walk the men convene at a local coffee shop, holding court to anyone who pauses for a natter. The group has gradually increased in size. “People would stop and ask what we were doing there every morning” says Mike. So the Greys, ever convivial, invited any men of a certain age to join them. Visits to the dog park became another source for recruitment.

The Greys meet most weekdays. Some of them still work part time: Roger works as a pharmacist two days a week; Mike consults as a property developer; Phillip writes a weekly newspaper column.

At their local café, they have their own special reserved sign for their table. The staff fuss around proffering dog treats to the pups who accompany them – Humphrey the Basset Hound, and Buddy the German Shepherd – and who are, after all, the raison d'être for the group. Sometimes Roger’s “grand-pup” Frankie the Frenchie, a bulldog and a football-shaped knot of muscle, joins them too.

At these gatherings the group conceive other fun activities. Phillip organises the Chelmer Speakers Club, which held its first meeting in May 2012 and is now thriving. Then there is Heidi’s Heroes. Heidi Hancock, a health and wellness mentor, got chatting with Mike over the monthly Friday afternoon wine and nibbles at the dog park. Now a dozen or more Greys meet here at 6.30 am on Wednesdays for a work out, decamping post-session back to the café – but this time for some well-earned raisin toast as well. The Greys clearly adore Heidi. Mike tells me in effusive tones about how much better he feels for the exercise. 'Just one hour a week has really helped. It’s really made a difference,' he says.

The group working out with Heidi.

After their workout, I sit chatting to the boys. Out come more coffees, piccolos this time, in 'Roger' and 'wuss' strengths. Roger tells me that the group has been his lifesaver. 'It gives me a reason to get out of bed in the morning.' For Roger, retirement yawned gloomily ahead. With knee replacement surgery to both knees in quick succession, he sank into a melancholic despondency. He says he was very depressed, and rather lonely. 'Frankly, I just didn’t know what to do with myself.' The Disgraceville Greys, in their delightful, collegial, and supportive way, lifted him out of his rut. When I catch up with Jan, Roger’s wife, she says, 'This group has meant the world to him; it has just done wonders'. Clearly, he is now loving life and embracing all kinds of new experiences – including line dancing.

The group have created their own wine label featuring Buddy, Humphrey and Frankie. Called The Perfect Vintage, the label says 'Aged to Perfection, a smooth rich lasting flavour which should never be put down'. The group organised a trip to the 2013 Gympie Races; 17 of them shared a Melbourne Cup lunch; and in January they went en masse to the Tamworth Country Music Festival. Not only is there no putting down these gentlemen, there is no stopping them either!

I said that I want some of whatever these men are taking. I think that what they are 'on' is 'community'. These men have become friends who share a sense of belonging and a purpose. They have worked at creating their own community; one that provides them with comfort and joy. Communities can be hard to find, especially in what can sometimes feel like soulless, unwelcoming city suburbs. But when you can find them they are like shining diamonds.

So do what they did. Make connections; say 'hello'. You may find yourself line dancing alongside a complete stranger. I did. And I loved it.

We could all learn a lesson from the indefatigable Disgraceville Greys.

Arboretum – A place grown with trees

Arboretum – A place grown with trees

Fresh farm produce, from the farm gate in Oxley

Fresh farm produce, from the farm gate in Oxley