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Keeping it in the family: How West Berkshire's Shared Lives scheme helps adults in need

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Going shopping or for a day out is a regular weekend treat for many families across the UK. But for David and Mel it is something special.

Mel is a carer and David is an adult in need of support.

Mel has opened up her home to people like David for years, offering adults with special needs a life of independence and a chance at family life rather than that of residential care.

Wendy and David
Wendy and David

For both of them, West Berkshire’s Shared Lives scheme has been a life changer.

Mel is passionate about other people getting involved.

“So many people say ‘oh I could never do that’. But I say, ‘well you live with your husband or your children’ and it’s just like having another friend to stay really,” she said.

Mel, Stan and Philip
Mel, Stan and Philip

“It is the perfect community solution.

“I think you have to have compassion and patience and you have to like people and have a good sense of humour. There is no more skill to it than that.

“I like to be of service really, and offer help. Even if you are new to having people living with you, you can still offer a day trip. “

Mel has children of her own and says her parents were Shared Lives carers when she was a teenager.

Mel and Philip
Mel and Philip

"We might want to go to see things that my nine-year-old wouldn’t so if we could find more carers who would do small trips and things that would be great," she adds.

David lives with other Shared Lives carers called Mick and Wendy.

He is in his 50s and has a learning disability.

Wendy, David and Michael
Wendy, David and Michael

He is also very sociable so he moved into Mick and Wendy’s home from his mum's. David wanted to be more independent.

“As much as I love my mum I just wanted to move on,” he said. “I’m over 50 now so I wanted to do my own thing.”

He has had a few carers over the years, but is now permanently at his new home in Newbury where he has been for the last two years.

Wendy and David
Wendy and David

“I live with two Mencap carers,” he explained. "It has been a great turnaround for me. I also share the house with five cats. Mick and Wendy feed them.

“But I help with putting the bins and recycling out and I hoover my room now and again. I also empty the dishwasher. I can more or less cope by myself.

“I go to the Phoenix Centre twice a week and visit my mum and do this and that. My mum does miss me though.”

In an era of shrinking social care budgets and a rising elderly population, politicians are increasingly referring to the need for care to come "from the community”.

Mel and her husband Jason
Mel and her husband Jason

West Berkshire Council plays its part in the national scheme and has 68 homes on its books.

It places vulnerable adults with supportive families rather than in residential care.

Many of the 68 people in the West Berkshire scheme have been in a residential care home before being given the chance to live what most of us might know as a normal family life.

Paul Flack
Paul Flack

Apart from delivering what the former health secretary Jeremy Hunt referred to as the restoration of "the social contract between generations”, it seems the scheme can deliver savings – as well as happiness.

Paul Flack is the service manager in the district and wants more people to come forward.

“I’ve been with Shared Lives for about 15 years now," he said. "I just think carers offer a unique support. We get so many good, positive responses from people about their carers. They seem to be happy.

“Throughout the years, it has usually been word of mouth to get people involved with us.

“A lot of care providers know us, but maybe more people would like to offer their time or a space in their home for someone.

“We do need more carers. I’d just like them to come forward as it is a very worthwhile thing to do.”

So it is a win win for a council which is looking at ways to reduce the cost burden of adult social care in the district.

Special attention is paid to matching individuals with the most suitable carers under the programme.

It is this sense of belonging to the wider community which lies at the heart of the Shared Lives approach.

The practice was first adopted in Geel, Belgium, 800 years ago, when families looked after pilgrims suffering mental ill-health.

Today's scheme looks very different.

Users include older people, care-leavers, ex-offenders, those with mental health problems and people with physical or learning disabilities.

Carers receive an allowance similar to foster carers, typically £300 to £600 a week for each user, and can cater for needs that would not be met in a traditional care setting.

For example, a carer in Devon with a small-holding was found to support a learning-disabled woman who did not want to be parted from her flock of geese. She had been left homeless after her mother could no longer care for them both and entered residential care.

Placements can be short or long term and can also be used for respite so that family carers can have a break.

As a first step there is a matching process. This involves matching people together and giving them time to get to know each other at their own pace, before making any long-term commitment to sharing a home.

The main requirement is for people who are caring and want to care for someone else. Training and support is provided for all carers.

The West Berkshire Shared Lives scheme is based at the Phoenix Resource Centre, in Newbury, and you can find out more on the West Berkshire Council website here https://info.westberks.gov.uk/sharedlives

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