Regular Able Magazine columnist, Sophie Partridge, gives us the lowdown on employing a personal assistant through self directed funding.
“We’re putting together our Care Guide” e-mails the editor, “and I’d like you to tell us about choosing your carer and using self directed funding (rather than the authorities doing it for you).” Great, I reply, but where to start?
Perhaps by explaining that I don’t use the term ‘care’; to me, that word denotes someone in need of looking after – someone not able to utilise ‘self’ directed support. I’m not a child, needing to be looked after, or I’d have stayed at home with my parents. Instead, I prefer the term ‘personal assistance’. Depending on who and what your needs are, that can take the form of intimate tasks such as getting dressed or more practical things like shopping. In my case, and for many others, it’s a bit of both. Self directed support means you’re given funding for assistance but that you’re the boss. This has and always will be a learning curve. Today, as a petite lady of a certain age, I’m still learning. As I have changed as a person, so my needs have changed too. When I was younger, I wanted assistants who’d come out partying with me; now it’s more like: “please occupy yourself whilst I have a nice cup of tea in front of the telly”.
The thought of engaging a Personal Assistant (PA) – whether we decide to employ people directly or not – is daunting. Society often has the attitude that we really should do everything for ourselves, always, as much as we can; if that’s not possible then somehow our lives are lesser. All I can say is that, although needing to have high levels of assistance just to live a ‘normal’ life (entailing engagement with a system that is complex, often intrusive and under-funded) is not easy but it’s a whole lot better than the very ‘limited’ life that I would (not) lead without; very probably in residential care. That’s not my ‘choice’.
I’ve had assistants in various guises; initially volunteers staying just a few months, through to PAs I’ve employed directly for several years (including some still working with me), to finding a reliable, disabled-led agency that does the ‘spade-work’ for me. In other words I pay a fee and they provide all the workers (of my choosing, after interview), check references and sort out PAYE etc.
All those elements are necessary to having your own assistants; whether you do it yourself or have a broker. Some individuals with various impairments use a third party that does all those boring bits, but they still, ultimately, determine who provides their assistance. It really is a moveable feast and there is no set way to do things. We are all individuals and what suits one person, may not suit another.
Ironically, The Independent Living Fund* first instigated Direct Payments to disabled individuals so that they could employ people of their own choosing, as traditional agency and/or Social Service ‘care’ simply wasn’t good enough. We don’t stop being consumers just because we have assistance needs and we should all be able to shop around.
Having made that decision to go ahead with self directed support and assuming you’ve been successfully assessed by your local social services department, you’ll have been awarded (that’s the term) a ‘care package’, usually as a Direct Payment through your local council. You’ll be given a budget (a set amount of money) and specific guidelines as to what you can spend it on. (How exactly that money has been spent will be monitored at regular intervals.) Sounds scary but your local authority or local disability-led organisation should provide you with a support service.
First of all you need to advertise in order to recruit either one or several PAs. You can advertise through local press and on websites etc but be careful – don’t give too much personal information away about yourself and make sure you obtain up-to-date references. Once you’ve found people to interview, prepare some questions you want to ask, think of a safe place to conduct the interview (and feel free to have someone else present). I also think it helps to provide a clear job description in advance.
If you then chose to employ someone directly, you’ll have to allocate that budget for specific legalities including a decent PA wage, paid holiday, tax stuff such as employers’ contribution National Insurance and so on. You’ll also need to consider providing items including a written contract with terms of employment. (Ask your Local Authority for support.)
Have a Back-up plan for emergency cover too. In other words, think about what you’ll do if a PA ‘phones in sick’. It does happen, however reliable a person may be and you need to think in advance about how to deal with this situation. Personally, I just hassle all my other PAs by texting or calling until I can find someone to cover. Some PA users who can’t be alone due to their impairment levels, have clauses written in to their contracts stating that their PA is not entitled to leave a shift until another, suitable PA is present. All terms should be clearly stated in contracts and signed by all parties, so that everyone knows what the expectations of the engagement are.
The job description is vital. Think about everything a PA needs to do when working with you and get it all down on paper. This includes things like how sociable you want to be; your management style; for example, ‘friendly but not friends’. Learn to trust your gut instinct and if an interviewee doesn’t feel ‘quite right’, for whatever reason, then don’t take them on. Learn by your mistakes because you will almost certainly make some. Hopefully not too many and don’t beat yourself up when things don’t go quite according to plan.
Over the years, I have realised that if you treat people decently, chances are, you’ll get that respect back. It doesn’t always happen unfortunately but during those times be strong, get support from other PA users and remind yourself that on this occasion, it really is them and not you.
Finally, focus on self directed funding as being a tool to enable you to live your life – it should not ‘become your life’ but allow you instead, to create one that is, ‘care free’.
*Despite a successful legal challenge in November 2013 the Coalition Government announced in March this year, that The Independent Living Fund is once again, set to close in June 2015.