In a blog last week, I talked about the need for us to find new ways of connecting people and suggested that the Big Society idea of street parties and re-creating the village in today’s city wasn’t going to work. I suggested we need to build communities helping people who are like-minded to find each other. In his comment, ‘Liam’ asked: “Where would that leave people with disabilities, or Alzheimer’s Disease, or others who do even speak perhaps?” Liam is interested in communities and isolation: I’m grateful to him for quoting Jean Vanier, the founder of the L’Arche communities, who describes isolation as ‘a taste of death’. That’s a powerful image.
Liam is right, I think, that the concept of “like-mindedness”, like “community” itself, can be exclusive as well as inclusive. Can you have belonging, without having people who don’t belong? Is a shared space only defined by its walls? One of the appeals of the work which our members does to me is that it makes links in unlikely places. People who have been assumed not to have anything in common with anyone, and to be “challenging”, turn out to have plenty in common with others, when they find the right place to call home.
Alison and Mark run a pub in a seaside town. Neil, who has a learning disability, spent a lot of time drinking in pubs around the town, and gradually spent more and more time at Alison’s pub. Alison and Mark were concerned about his drinking, his behaviour and increasingly, his safety. He even began sleeping rough on their doorstep. Alison and Mark approached the council and were told about Shared Lives. They put themselves through the recruitment, training and approval procedures and became registered Shared Lives carers.
Neil’s sister recently told Alison that, since Neil moved in with them, he was looking people in the eye for the first time. He takes care of his appearance and has control over his drinking; people say they can now understand his speech. He has achieved long-held ambitions like going to Wembley. Neil says “Now I have what I wanted: what I wanted was a family”. Alison says “His behaviour has changed completely. He brings a whole new dimension to our lives, we get as much pleasure as he does in our ‘family’. We are even thinking of getting out of the pub trade to become full time carers”.
Alison and Neil had nothing to do with social care before becoming Shared Lives carers, but they helped someone failed by traditional social care services. Their willingness to connect with someone whom others would simply see as a problem may be rare, but thankfully not unique. I’m looking forward to seeing what Neil, Alison and Mark create out of their connection.