New radicals?

This weekend, the nice people at NESTA included Shared Lives in an article you can read online (http://www.nesta.org.uk/news_and_features/britains_new_radicals/alex_fox_shared_lives)  and a mention in the Observer, under the heading ‘Britain’s New Radicals’. Shared Lives as a new form of radicalism is interesting. Whilst Shared Lives Plus was founded in the 1990s, Shared Lives isn’t a very new form of radicalism: it’s been a radical idea ever since the middle ages.

In the 14th Century, pilgrims came from all over Europe to the Belgium town of Geel, which has a shrine to Saint Dymphna, the patron saint of mental illness. Instead of building a large asylum for people with mental illness, the town organised itself into a ‘boarding out’ system, with pilgrims living with families in the town. That arrangement still survives in Geel today. It came to Scotland in Victorian times as an alternative to asylums and then returned to the UK in the ‘70s, where it quickly became predominantly a service for people with learning disabilities, particularly during the ‘80s when large numbers of people with learning disabilities moved out of long stay hospitals. Most moved into care homes, but some into the homes of people we would now recognise as Shared Lives carers. I was lucky enough to meet people who have been living together for 30 years on a recent trip to Bath’s scheme.

These days, Shared Lives carers have to undertake vetting, approval and training. The support and accommodation they offer is monitored by their local Shared Lives scheme. They don’t just offer long term live-in arrangements, but also short breaks and day support, particularly for people with dementia, who often prefer a regular, familiar visit to a Shared Lives carer in the carer’s own home than to use a large day centre.

However, although Shared Lives is now regulated, with its own rules and even tax arrangements, it’s never lost its radical edge. I still meet people who can’t beliece that  people will welcome a relative stranger into their home, particularly someone who may have lots of support needs. It just doesn’t seem to fit with everything we’re told about the way we live today: consumerist, insular, competitive.

Sometimes people ask me if I’d ever become a Shared Lives carer myself and the truth is that, even if I was home enough to be able to make the commitment, I don’t think I could. I’m too compartmentalised. I like knowing whether I’m working, doing family things, socialising or having time to myself. In other words – I’m not radical enough to pull down the boundaries between work and leisure, socialising and being on my own. Most Shared Lives carers would say that they get some time to themselves, but something they always say about the support they give is “s/he is just one of the family” and “it’s just become normal family life”. They tend to say “they’re just one of the family” whether they fell into Shared Lives whilst running a pub, or they support someone with the most complex and challenging needs. Compared to the 100 page contracts, performance indicators and outcomes frameworks of mainstream social care that’s either a beautifully simple idea, or an unsettlingly radical one, depending on your point of view.

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