My first impression when I enter Angela’s house is of how wonderfully welcoming it is. I soon feel at home, thanks to her warm smile, and the offer of a cup of tea.
Angela is an Ategi Shared Lives Carer. She and her partner Tina share their home with Debbie and Linda, two ladies with learning difficulties who, until they moved in with Angela two years ago lived most of their lives in care homes.
Settled in the living room, I chat with Angela, Debbie and Linda about their life together.
First, we talk about the cats – Leo and Slinky. Linda tells me shyly that Slinky regularly sits on the warm bonnet of the car, and sleeps on top of the kitchen cabinet.
When I ask Angela how she came to be an Ategi Shared Lives Carer, she explains that she has a background in care work, having worked in residential homes.
“Several years ago,” she explains, “I was working as a cleaner at Aylesbury’s Young Offender’s Institute, but I wasn’t happy. I missed working as a carer. It was around then that I came across the ‘Ategi Shared Lives’ advert. It said something along the lines of: ‘Can you give a loving, caring home to someone?’”
It seemed to make perfect sense. With her three children having left home, Angela and Tina were living in a four bedroom house.
“We had the empty bedrooms,” continues Angela, “So I thought that maybe this was a chance for me to go back to doing what I have always enjoyed most. Caring for people.”
Encouraged by Tina, and by her friend Jen, Angela made contact with Ategi. She spoke to them on the phone, and they visited her home and had long conversations with her and Tina. There were various important processes to go through before Angela could be accepted as a potential Shared Lives carer – to make sure that everybody’s wellbeing was taken into consideration and that their home was suitable. Years ago, when she was working in a residential home, there was a sad incident which has haunted Angela ever since.
“Two elderly ladies, who were devoted and very close friends, had to be separated,” she explains, “It was heartbreaking. One was sent to another care home, and died just a week or so later.”
Remembering this, Angela told Ategi that she would be happy to accept two people who would be unhappy to be placed in separate homes from each other.
Vicki, from Ategi said: “I think I have just the people for you – they were made for you.”
The people to whom she was referring were Linda and Debbie. At this point in the visit, Tina arrives home from her shift as a prison warden at Aylesbury Young Offender’s Institute. She has twinkling eyes, grey spiky hair and a great big smile. She sits down beside Linda.
“She’s trouble! She’s always messing around!” Linda tells me, but with a smile.
I ask Tina how she finds family life with Debbie and Linda.
“It’s very rewarding,” she says, “Especially with a job like mine. I have a hard day at work but when I get home that all goes. We’ll have a laugh together. They’re quiet today because they are meeting somebody new, but normally they don’t stop talking!”
Before coming to live with Angela and Tina, Linda and Debbie were in residential care for almost all of their lives. Neither has many happy memories, or ever completely settled in any of the care homes they were in. Two years ago, Debbie and Linda did not talk much. Both women found it difficult to make eye contact and would prefer to hide away. They had met before in other care homes, and had been reunited at the latest one.
“They did not feel loved,” says Angela, “they did not feel part of something.”
Angela finds it easy to empathise with Linda and Debbie, as she herself was painfully shy as a child.
“I understood how they were feeling. But they’ve changed since they came to live with us. They dress differently, they act differently, it’s a joy to see.”
Angela, Tina, Debbie and Linda now live together like any other family. Cooking in the household is a joint effort. Linda is an excellent cook, and washes up as she goes along. Debbie is best at pastries, whereas Linda has a gift for making the lightest Yorkshire puddings. As Angela explains, Linda and Debbie nod in confirmation. They enjoy watching TV together in the evenings, Linda and Debbie love programmes with animals in them. They all enjoy Eastenders, Coronation Street and Emmerdale. They’ll have meals out and day trips. They’ll argue about football. Linda supports Tottenham Hotspur. Like any family, they all have different timetables. Angela looks after her baby granddaughter Ellie on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Linda and Debbie go to their day centres a couple of days a week and Tina does her shifts at the prison. There are plenty of visitors, including Angela’s children and grandchildren. Angela’s daughter Becky brings Ellie to visit regularly, and Debbie and Linda love having a baby in the house. Linda’s family visit too – her twin sister Susan and sometimes her Auntie Mollie. Relatives and friends often join them for Sunday tea or a Sunday roast.
We talk about ‘respite’ care, when Angela has some time off from being a carer. This happens several times a year. Next week, Tina and Angela are going to visit Angela’s mum in Warrington for nine nights, and Linda and Debbie will stay with a short-term Ategi carer, who they know and trust. As the visit goes on, and after a second cup of tea and some cake, Linda and Debbie lose their initial shyness. We talk about the family sing-alongs, and Debbie gives me a rendition of ‘Doh a Deer’ from ‘The Sound of Music’.
“I love Drama,” she says, “I love to sing and act.”
Debbie goes to church every Sunday and has good friends there. She finds it uplifting, the singing and clapping. She loves the day centre she goes to as well. “I can reach out to people there,” she says, “I can have conversations.” Linda enjoys arts and crafts and shows me a scrapbook she made for Angela, which is filled with Christmas recipes she has carefully cut out and stuck in. She also shows me a special shoebox, which she has covered in beautiful patterned paper. Linda has been to Menorca with Angela and Tina twice, and judging from the photographs they all had a fantastic time. Debbie only went the first time, and decided that she did not enjoy the sun, or the water, so the second time she chose to have a short break with a carer instead. They will go away this year, but not to Menorca as – like most families these days – they can’t afford to go abroad every year.
“Debbie does a brilliant Frank Spencer impersonation,” says Angela. I look at Tina and she nods. Debbie smiles when they ask her if she’ll do one for me. “Go on,” coaxes Tina. Then she does it. The absolute best Frank Spencer impersonation I have ever heard in my entire life.
“Betty!” she says, “The cat’s done a whoopsie on the table!”
It is perfect. It is spot on. We are all helpless with laughter.
I ask Debbie how she feels about living with Angela and Tina, in a proper home.
“I am much happier living here,” she says, “in the other homes I did not feel loved, and people were mean to me. Now I have a family who love me, and I love them.”
As I prepare to leave, I think about something that was said at the beginning of the visit, when we were talking about the cats Leo and Slinky. Leo came from a family around the corner, but he decided that he was happier with Angela, Tina, Linda and Debbie. It turned out that this suited everybody concerned, so he was allowed to stay.
“He chose us,” said Angela, smiling, “just like we chose each other.”