Regular readers will know that our goal at Shared Lives Plus is to double the number of people using Shared Lives in the UK, ultimately seeing Shared Lives become the go-to option wherever someone needs support and accommodation long-term. We have resources to aim for that goal in England where we’re on track to double from 10,000 to 20,000 people over five years. If we achieve that, Shared Lives will still only be a small part of UK social care provision – 2% rather than 1%. So what would it look like if Shared Lives was the main form of social care?
I’m writing this in Vancouver airport, on my (long) way home after a four day trip to British Columbia, where Shared Lives, or Homeshare as they more generally describe it here, has grown in a short space of time from hundreds to thousands of people, and is now used by well over 50% of people with learning disabilities who live in some form of supported accommodation.
What does this look like? My visit to Canada was courtesy of leading Homeshare programme provider, posAbilities, and in the two households kindly took me to visit, shared living looks just as moving and powerful as great Shared Lives looks in the UK: people choosing to treat each other as family and in it for the long haul. Warmth, fun and a huge amount of laughter.
Robbie and Gerald live in a high rise apartment of the kind you’d rarely find in a similarly leafy suburb in the UK. Down the hill, hundreds of logs are being herded under the suspension bridge across the mighty Fraser River, from the vast cedar forests inland. On the horizon a single snow-capped mountain could be right out of Middle Earth. There’s much that feels foreign to me, but when we talk about Charlie and Douglas, whom Robbie supports full time, he says they are ‘just part of the family’, which couldn’t sound more familiar. Charlie’s art hangs on the walls and Douglas shows us his precious family pictures. Douglas needs dialysis, but Robbie and Gerald aren’t phased: they’ve both taken training in order to do this at home, which will be less disruptive and should have better health outcomes. They are confident that Douglas won’t let his health challenges, nor being in his ’80s, stop him from his annual swim in the open ocean on his birthday, nervous as it sometimes makes them!
In a very North American clapboard house, a confident young woman called Tanya and her wonderfully welcoming Shared Lives carer, Ivana, talk about everything that they are achieving together. Tanya, as she points out to us, is unforgettable. She has a wide circle of friends and comes and goes as she pleases, enjoying the privacy of rooms to herself in the basement of the house, but also the company of Ivana, who is teaching her how to cook good food among many other things.
Ivana says that it is outgoing and sociable Tanya, not her, who has got to know all of their neighbours, but she is on hand to help Tanya make good choices as she navigates her relationships. Like many Shared Lives households, they’re a formidable force for sociability and community connecting, which gets me and the PosAbilities team wondering how community connection programmes could draw on the combined gifts and skills of Shared Lives households more effectively in tackling the disconnection within communities which, as in the UK, is increasingly a problem in Canada (despite the abundant friendliness you experience constantly around Vancouver and the heritage of communality which was the heart of many native First Nations cultures.)
Whilst the UK and Canadian experiences have much in common, there are also some interesting distinctions. Shared Lives in the UK has grown haphazardly and has endured long periods where it has been little-understood or valued. On the flipside, this organic growth has helped ensure it has remained values-based: driven by people who believed in it and chosen by people who have often had to seek it out. The growth in BC has been driven by government, motivated by an at-times uneasy combination of values and the search for savings. Whereas in the UK, the pioneers of Shared Lives fought successfully to carve out enough space, trust and autonomy within an otherwise rigid regulatory regime for a form of social care which manages to be both truly caring and truly social, in Canada there is the converse need to establish the infrastructure needed by this rapidly burgeoning sector.
In both nations, Shared Lives has yet to become a grassroots movement. In Canada, this is because people and families have not had the opportunity to shape the rapidly emerging sector; in the UK, because few have heard of it. The discussion I’ve been part of over the last few days, with provider organisations, families, social innovators and the provincial government, kept coming back to the need for this kind of movement, with new alliances between Shared Lives carers, people who use services, families, and provider organisations. Every movement for social change must wrestle with the trade-off between pace and scale on the one hand, and integrity on the other. I travel home feeling optimistic that we can emulate BC’s energy and ambition, and excited by the conversations my Canadian colleagues are having about co-design and co-production. Perhaps Shared Lives International starts here….
If you want to find out more about social innovation in Canada and internationally, I’d recommend Al Etmanski’s ‘Impact: six patterns to spread your social innovation’, published by Orwell Cove.