I’m part of a working group on the Social Integration Commission (hosted by the Challenge Network and chaired overall by Matthew Taylor of RSA), which is looking at the ways in which we mix with people different from ourselves, and whether that mixing or lack of it has an impact on people and the communities they live in. People mixing with other people, whom they might not otherwise have met, is at the heart of Shared Lives and Homeshare. Both also help people who need support to mix with others in their communities, in ways which many other forms of support either don’t address, or in the case of some building-based services, actively prevent. They make this possible by avoiding seeing the individual only in terms of their support needs and instead seeing them as someone with lots to offer to others (“He/She is just part of the family” is a common Shared Lives carer refrain). A great way to help us to stop dividing the world into groups of people who need support and groups of people who provide it, is to celebrate the work of people who, like many of us, have at different times been part of both groups.
With this in mind, I asked our members recently for examples of Shared Lives carers who have drawn on their own lived experience of health issues or using services. Sandra who runs the Herefordshire Shared Lives scheme kindly got in touch about two Shared Lives carers who wanted to share their stories. Sheila felt it was important throughout the process of applying to be a Shared Lives carer to talk about her own mental health issues some years ago. Sheila now uses her extensive life skills and experience, including her experiences of mental ill health, to help others who have mental health problems. Sheila feels that loneliness and the lack of support will often be the major contributor to the person having a mental health episode. Her own experiences have helped her to develop her expertise in recognising mental health issues and helping people to maintain their mental health, with feeling comfortable in acknowledging and talking about the issues surrounding mental health a crucial part of what Sandra describes as Sheila’s “outstanding practice of non-judgmental support” to the people who visit or live in her household.
Helen, another Shared Lives carer in Hereford had breast cancer some years ago, from which she has now recovered. She lives with Jenny, who needed a lot of support with a longstanding OCD and other challenges, following a close bereavement. Jenny has had many new experiences through living with Helen, amongst her favourite being walking on sand and seeing the sea. Jenny’s OCD left her with a fear of preparing food, but she now helps Helen, who used to be a professional cook with the police force, in preparing teas for the police cricket team in the summer. Jenny was diagnosed with breast cancer last year. Helen was able to explain a lot from her own as a cancer survivor. This was reassuring to Jenny and her whole family as they faced treatment, which was traumatic but successful.
Shared Lives is far from unique in examples of this kind, but the Shared Lives approval process is very values-focused, and perhaps more ready to value lived experience, which can be hard to do if your profession or organisation sees the ‘ideal’ attitude as being one of impeccably-boundaried professional detachment. So in our work developing Shared Lives for groups of people who are stigmatised, such as people with mental health problems, and who often lack formal qualifications, such as offenders, there is the really exciting potential to recruit many more Shared Lives carers with lived experience, and helping people from those groups both with getting more effective and less stigmatizing support, and with tackling the employment barriers they face as they move on.