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This is a guest post by Alex Fox FRSA, CEO of Shared Lives Plus

Shared Lives Plus is the national membership body for Shared Lives schemes and carers. Recently, 83 Shared Lives carers, who between them have supported over 500 people in the last five years, responded to a survey on the life goals they had helped people living in Shared Lives care achieve for the first time.The results were not academically robust, but they were striking. Nearly all of the people supported had been able to make new friends, with over a third making five or more new friends by visiting or moving in with a Shared Lives carer and his or her family. While it is hard to find comparative data, it is safe to say that most care homes struggle to help their residents make friends outside of the home. Barriers include not having enough staff on shift to accompany people to social activities in the evenings or weekends; the need for risk assessments before residents can spend time with people who have not been police-checked; and simply the stigma of living in a service, rather than a household.

In contrast, people visit or move in with Shared Lives carers with whom they have been matched for compatibility by the local Shared Lives scheme. For instance, people who enjoy football may be matched, and thereafter go to football matches together. All Shared Lives carers are encouraged to involve their family, friends and neighbours in the support they offer. The best act a little like personal community development workers for the people who they support, helping people not only gain the practical skills they need to live independently, but also to make the friendships they need to live happily.

The comments on the survey from Shared Lives carers illustrated this: “One of my service users learnt how to ride a bike for the first time ever. This was mainly through our children encouraging him. Both our service users are happy and really settled with our family. They both now that they have a caring family who they are now very used to and this has only helped them in their socialising and extending friendships [sic].” Another said, “One of my ladies was terrified to go outside. She can't read, write, tell the time and has no concept of time. She had never traveled alone. She now accesses the public bus service herself alone on foot, crosses busy roads, gets on the right bus and gets to college alone and returns alone. She has made lots of friends of her own. She has a voluntary role in a cafe taking money and orders as well as making food and clearing away.”

These outcomes are vital, but they are hard to measure or to put into a contract. How do you measure the benefit of someone “develop[ing] the confidence to helm a narrowboat on the Stroudwater canal”, as one Shared Lives carer reported of the person living with them? Yet in an increasingly competitive and cash-strapped commissioning environment, where crude procurement practices are leading to a race to the bottom in many areas, it is not enough to simply point out that half of the people in our survey had been on the first holiday of their lives through Shared Lives, or that 12 per cent had their first boyfriend or girlfriend.

Fortunately, Shared Lives does not only create ‘notional’ savings through better outcomes, or a ‘Social Return on Investment’ that would be hard to trace in real public spending budgets. At the launch of the new Shared Lives Incubator at the RSA this week, attendees were presented with a report by Shared Lives Plus, its sister organisation Community Catalysts, the social investment experts, Social Finance, and leading care provider charity, MacIntyre, supported by the RSA. The report was written with the help of three councils who provided us with detailed breakdowns of the costs for different types of social care in their areas. Analysis of those figures showed that, taking all the associated costs (such as day care and breaks) into account, Shared Lives is cheaper than care homes and supported living by an average of £26,000 per year per person (for people with learning disabilities) and £8,000 per year per person (for people with mental health problems).

This is the basis on which we are launching the Shared Lives Incubator. The demonstrable cashable savings generated by Shared Lives mean that socially-minded investors, such as charities which might otherwise invest their endowments on the stock exchange, can make a modest return on investments by helping Shared Lives schemes to grow. The investor puts their money at risk to employ a new coordinator. If the local scheme grows successfully, the council pays a premium on top of the usual cost of new Shared Lives arrangements to provide the return on investment. Not only does the Incubator bring investment into Shared Lives schemes; it also combines the expertise of Community Catalysts and MacIntyre to ensure that schemes are operating as effectively and efficiently as possible.

This combination of a values-driven approach to care with hard-headed economics may prove to be the route through which Shared Lives moves from the periphery to the mainstream of care and support. In a time when caring professionals are losing jobs, people are struggling to pay mortgages and the UK is struggling to afford decent care, it has never made more sense to harness the skills, community networks and housing capacity of the UK’s many caring people.

This is a guest post by Alex Fox FRSA, CEO of Shared Lives Plus, the UK network for small community services. He tweets on @alexsharedlives

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