It is the time of year when those of us who are able might be persuaded to open our wallets or purses for a good cause.
But what about opening up your home to support a complete stranger?
It is something which 300 households across Lancashire have done by providing adults with learning disabilities a place to stay – and plenty more besides.
The “shared lives” scheme, operated by Lancashire County Council, is not just about putting a roof over someone’s head. Individuals in need of help to live safely and happily are welcomed into – and become part of – somebody’s else’s life.
For Leyland couple Gill Holt and Pete Livingstone, it began when the then 24-year-old Adrian moved in with them back in 2003. Fifteen years later, he is now getting ready to celebrate his 40th birthday with the family who consider him one of their own.
Looking back, Gill acknowledges that it was a “big decision” when she and her husband first got involved in the programme by offering respite visits to people whose family carers needed a break.
“We have two daughters and I think they thought, ‘And what about us?’. But they had those initial worries dispelled, because we had really nice people who came to stay with us and they really enjoyed them being part of the family.”
And it was for that reason that the couple soon decided to offer space in their home and their hearts on a permanent basis to people who could not live with their own family and would otherwise have gone into residential care.
“Adrian chose us,” Gill smiles, as she proudly describes his progress since he joined them, including getting a part-time job at a garden centre and gaining the confidence to travel on public transport.
“I was a bit unsure I wanted to come here permanently, so I just decided to come temporarily,” Adrian explains in a brief moment of earnestness. But it’s not long before his laugh is once again reverberating around the room in a way that happens only in a place where you feel truly at home.
So seriously do Gill and Pete take their responsibility for Adrian’s happiness, as well as his welfare, that he was the first person they consulted when they considered expanding their family even further.
With Adrian’s approval secured, the couple welcomed Angela eight years ago, who came to stay when she no longer had any family to look after her.
As effective brother and sister, Adrian and Angela torment and exasperate each other like most siblings – but both admit that they “wouldn’t swap” the other for anybody else.
“I knew I was going to settle as soon as I met Gill – she made me feel very welcome,” Angela recalls. “I enjoy taking the dog for a walk and I’ve also got a job as a cleaner, which I love – it’s nice to meet people.”
These seemingly simple pleasures belie the fact that none of them would be possible without the everyday support provided by Gill and Pete.
Their role is effectively one of carer, but Gill says that potential volunteers should not be overwhelmed by the prospect.
“You get training, so people needn’t worry about that. The only thing you need to have is an open mind, an open heart and enthusiasm.
“People may have concerns about whether they will get the opportunity to have a break and do things for themselves. We do – Adrian And Angela both go to people who do what we initially did and provide short breaks,” Gill explains.
But it is perhaps a measure of how well the the scheme has worked for the family that Adrian and Angela very often go on holiday with them. Adrian’s 40th will be celebrated on a cruise around the Fjords – his choice.
Gill deftly swerves any attempt to single out the family for their generosity in completely rearranging their own lives for the benefit of others.
“I don’t think you’ve got to be anything other than somebody who is willing to give things a go – although a good sense of humour is always helpful.
“It’s just about me and Peter being here and giving Adrian and Angela a helping hand to do whatever it is they want to do.
“It’s part and parcel of ordinary life, just the same as many other family set-ups, Gill adds.
And it is that simple fact which makes this particular family’s set-up all the more special.
‘Our carers are astounding’
The shared lives scheme is often likened to a fostering service for adults.
“It’s probably the best way to describe it,” says Lydia Ferguson, the programme’s co-ordinator at Lancashire County Council.
“On a daily basis, we’re always amazed by how astounding our carers are. They’re providing support to people with all kinds of different needs.
“We have people who have worked in the caring sector and others who have come from completely different backgrounds, but who have a caring nature and have felt drawn to do something like this.”
For those who do put themselves forward, they have to take part in a three-month application process, which includes home visits and the creation of a “carer profile” to establish exactly what they could offer to somebody living in their care.
Once an individual or family is approved for the scheme, work begins to match an adult in need with the kind of home environment which suits them best – and that means assessing both personalities and practicalities.
“We match against interests and routines and also geographical considerations,” Lydia explains. “And people always have the opportunity to say that they don’t want to live somewhere anymore – as does the carer [if they cannot continue].”
In return for the support they provide to others, carers themselves are supported by the county council, which was recently rated as “outstanding” by the Care Quality Commission for its shared lives service.
“We have officers in each area who are linked to carers and we provide regular monitoring and support – we’re always at the end of the phone,” Lydia says.
Shared Lives Plus, an organisation which oversees similar projects across the UK, estimates that the public purse saves £25,000 per year for every individual cared for by the scheme.
How it works
Shared lives placements can be permanent or provide temporary respite.
Carers need to have one spare bedroom for every individual who comes to stay with them and allow use of communal areas of their house.
A healthy diet should be provided, as well as support with day-to-day living.
An allowance of between £300 and £450 per week is given to carers to cover costs.
Carers will have to undergo mandatory training in things like first aid and behavioural support.
Could you share your life with somebody in need of support?
Anybody interested in finding out more about the shared lives scheme should call 01772 531326 or email firstname.lastname@example.org