Photo by Matthew Gilson

Harry Walker, 71, improved his health with tips he picked up at the Male Health Forum, which meets monthly in Chicago. Photo by Matthew Gilson

By Lisa Bertagnoli • Harry Walker, a retired truck driver for United Parcel Service, doesn’t nap anymore—and sleeps better at night. Rather than go by just how he feels, he uses a glucose meter to manage his diabetes. He enjoys a healthful diet, too: more fruits and vegetables, less junk food.

Walker, 71, picked up those hints and more while attending the Male Health Forum at Trinity United Church of Christ on Chicago’s South Side for the past three years.

Free dose of advice

He’s one of 200 or so retired men who gather the second Tuesday of the month for a free dose of valuable advice from health professionals. Except for about a dozen volunteers who do administrative tasks or serve lunch, there are no women at the forum, which covers an array of topics: depression, generic drugs, prostate health and sexual dysfunction.

The men-only policy suits Walker just fine.

“Some things men don’t feel comfortable talking about around women,” he said. “You’d be surprised at how many men ask questions and raise issues. They get up and ask personal questions unashamedly.”

The men gathered in Trinity’s sunlit auditorium one spring Tuesday to hear about depression from Olusola Ajilore, M.D., assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of Illinois at Chicago College of Medicine. After the program, questions flew: Is depression curable? Is it genetic? Do any medicines work better than others?

Most men remained for the $10 post-program lunch.

Doris Odem started the Male Health Forum a decade ago. She retired as a Chicago Public Schools administrator and then went to work for the University of Illinois Extension’s Urban Leadership Center, setting up programs for older people.

“I thought, ‘What could we do to help men?’ ” she said.

The forum launched with a program on prostate health and took off from there. Two years ago, AARP Illinois began lending financial support to help pay Odem, the only salaried staff.

Courtney Hollowell, M.D., chairman of the division of urology at the Cook County Health & Hospitals System, leads each program and rounds up speakers.

“Men desperately need a service like this. The majority of men … will tell you the last time they saw a doc was when they broke their arm when they were 15,” he said. His goal is to help forum members find and understand health information, a skill he calls “health literacy.”

He uses his network to find speakers like Ajilore—health professionals from the city’s teaching hospitals. Hollowell keeps topics relevant and useful: why to get flu shots, how to read a food’s nutrition label, the importance of checkups for high blood pressure and cholesterol.

Forum resumes in October

The program breaks for the summer. It will be back in October with topics such as arthritis, lung cancer and, most likely, male sexual dysfunction. That topic, suited to a women-free environment, “is something men ask for,” Hollowell said. “We’re not trying to exclude women. We’re just giving men a venue to discuss health care topics among men.”

Odem clicks off a few challenges for the forum. If it gets any bigger, it may have to relocate. Plus, even though Trinity donates space and the speakers don’t charge a fee, money is an issue. More money would pay for an assistant to expand the program throughout the South Side.

In the meantime, the forum perfectly suits Robert Butler, 73, who has attended for 10 years. Butler, a retired U.S. Postal Service worker, got his first colonoscopy and lost more than 60 pounds, thanks to the forum.

For more information, contact Laurinda Dodgen, AARP Illinois associate state director for multicultural outreach, at 312-458-3621 or email her at ldodgen@aarp.org.

 Lisa Bertagnoli is a writer living in Chicago

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