Ursula has been in the news, having been learning how to read through the help of her Shared Lives carer, Lesley, who is part of Shared Lives South West. Ursula is 87. The education system of her childhood had little ambition for Ursula and at school, she would sit at the back of the classroom with a friend that could read, turning the page when she did. One of the reasons Ursula has learned to read is because she loves knitting but was unable to read the knitting patterns. As so often happens in a Shared Lives household, Lesley got to know Ursula well enough to see her capabilities and potential, not just her needs. Rather than Ursula’s support being arranged around a busy shift work pattern, they have the time to spend together to learn at Ursula’s pace, as well as Ursula being supported by Learn Devon. Ursula says she hopes to inspire other people to read from her example.
We see people achieving extraordinary things all the time in Shared Lives arrangements, often in later life. I always have mixed emotions about these stories: inspired that people have rejected a lifetime of assumptions about what they cannot do, but angry thinking about the decades of expensive support services and ranks of experts who were either unable to see the person, or content with a lack of ambition. In the field of psychotherapy, there is research to suggest that the quality of people’s relationships with professionals has at least as much impact upon the outcomes of support as the technical skill of the practitioner. Shared Lives is implicitly built upon this insight: most of the investment is in getting the right people involved as Shared Lives carers and then matching them with people with whom they may be able to form a unique connection. Not every match works out, but when it does, the results can be astounding. Shared Lives carers will often report that it was not a complex intervention which helped someone change, but simply their relationship with a family member or even a pet. We often hear that the Shared Lives carer’s children are the ones who successfully encouraged their new household member to learn a new skill such as riding a bike.
Recently, another Shared Lives carer, Sarah told us about one of the men who lives with her: “One of our housemates has had his art etched on the glass walls of a newly renovated crypt at Rochester Cathedral- and he is soon to embark on his first solo exhibition … aged 70!”