I really enjoyed visiting ASA (Adults Supporting Adults) Lincolnshire this week (www.asaorg.co.uk). ASA has 60 Shared Lives carers offering long term and respite support to around 70 people. They also provide 4000 hours per month of support for people wishing to remain in their own homes or develop new independence. 12 of the Shared Lives carers just support people with dementia. As usual, meeting the people who use Shared Lives and the Shared Lives carers was the highlight. One lady told the group that it was because of Shared Lives that she can live in her own place, whilst still visiting her parents every week. She saw her Shared Lives carers as friends or family, rather than a service.
ASA is one of a growing band of Shared Lives schemes which has moved from being a council-run service to becoming an independent charity. It’s an example of how successful this model can be, as was evident from the enthusiasm of the busy Shared Lives carers and people they support who had very kindly given up their time to take part in the day. This year, ASA has even produced a surplus which it has ploughed back into supporting people, partly through a new scheme to provide supported shopping to older and vulnerable people in this largely rural area. Its Shop2together project will involve volunteer drivers, providing one-to-one shopping trips for people who need some support to buy their weekly shop. It was prompted by the problems older and isolated people faced in the snows of last winter. Local older people are currently spending £10 plus on taxi fares, whereas for 40p a mile, they will be able to enjoy a shopping trip which can include a cafe visit and help with unpacking shopping when they get home. Like everything related to Shared Lives, this won’t just be a service to meet a need, it will be about real relationships as well. Contrast this with the privatised meals on wheels services in some areas which have been so successful in cutting out human contact from their service, in pursuit of “efficiency”.
Of course, flexibility and creativity are not the exclusive preserve of the Third Sector. Alongside the ASAs of the world, I’ve also come across charities which are moribund and stuck in red tape of their own making. And anyone who wishes to make lazy assumptions about jobsworths in councils should look no further than the dedication that abounds in many of the council-run Shared Lives schemes in the UK. A couple of years ago, the Guardian’s public servant of the year was a chap from Nottingham council who took the deeply unsexy business of accessible public toilets and turned it into one of the most uplifting campaigns around (see people’s stories at http://www.changing-places.org). So outsourcing of previously in-house services will not always equal added value, but I have little doubt that outsourcing is coming to Shared Lives (along with everything else still provided in-house), whether we like it or not.
With this in mind, a small group of council-run Shared Lives services are gathering into a learning set led by our colleagues at Community Catalysts, to support and learn from each other as they face this possibility. ASA is one of many examples of this model working brilliantly, but if outsourcing does become the norm, it will also present huge risks as new contracts are negotiated in a financial climate when many budget managers are thinking primarily about the short-term and some are panicking. I don’t feel it is NAAPS’ role to push one model against another – the diversity of our members has always been our strength. But it will be up to all of us to make sure we are prepared for any eventuality. People who give and receive Shared Lives care will suffer if we don’t.