What’s in a day – does Covid offer a once in a generation chance to rethink day support?

Guest Blog from Angela Catley, Director of Development at Community Catalysts

This blog contributes to the #SocialCareFuture debate.

For decades people with a learning disability have shouted loud and proud that they want what should be unremarkable from life – a home, job or purpose, relationships and love, money, freedom and the support they need to live their life their way.

So how do day services fit with those aspirations?

Ancient history

If I am honest for most of my career the concept of day services has made me scratch my head. Not at the start I will admit, when in the final year at school in the 1980s I did work experience at a day centre for people with a learning disability run by my local council. 50 or 60 people, in roughly office hours, engaged in work-like (but not quite) activity such as putting nails in packs of 10.

All for a weekly brown ‘pay packet’ of 50p or so.

At the time I had no questions about the legitimacy of this – but I did see the pride in the people who attended and how they saw their working week as of equal value as anyone else’s.

Moving forward a few years the ‘workshop’ approach to day centres became less acceptable and I, like many others, was strong in my opinion that these workshop centres were exploitative and just plain wrong.

I fought for something different – but now wonder whether in that shift we threw some good out with the bad.

As I moved to work for voluntary sector organisations, I saw day centres shift to become day opportunities with an emerging emphasis on ‘preparation for work’ and/or leisure.

Sometimes people were expected to learn skills, for decades, for a job that seemed unlikely to ever be on offer. Sometimes the expectation was that they engage in constant ‘activities’ such as craft or gardening or baking, often without real purpose or anticipated outcome.

Along with this shift in thinking came a shift in commissioning with councils restructuring large centres into a combination of smaller council run ‘hubs’ together with services commissioned from local care providers.

As budgets reduced the number of people eligible to access support during the day also shrunk, leaving many people and their families falling through the support net altogether.

Recent history

Recently some history has come full circle, with both public and VCSE sector organisations starting enterprises or moving to work type activity – this time branded for the 21st century and viewed in a positive light.

There are many excellent, creative organisations working in this space.

Sometimes these new enterprises or services offer people amazing opportunities combined with the kind of pride and purpose I saw in the 1980s centre.

That said, many still aren’t able to pay people for the work they undertake and through all the commissioning twists and name change turns the Monday to Friday, office hours largely remain, even for those services who have no work focus and for who these hours make little real sense.

Then came Covid

Then came Covid and the rapid closure of day centres, services and opportunities across the country.

In many areas, councils and providers found ways to continue to support people in creative ways with tales of activity packs delivered, videos produced, zoom groups convened and doorstep meet ups organised. Where people lived in places with support, many Councils funded providers to extend their offer to cover day service hours.

In some areas this support also extended to family carers but in many others it did not.

A short term, emergency response turned into a longer-term situation with people unhappy, buildings empty, day service staff, both employed and commissioned by councils still on the payroll (albeit with furlough help from Government in some instances) and families increasingly frustrated and exhausted.

So…An opportunity to rethink and create something better?

Here at Community Catalysts we know from real experience what might be possible and have a strong interest in working in partnership to build back different and better.

We find ourselves having conversations with many councils all exploring the short, medium and longer-term future of day support.

All asking questions like ‘how do we help people and families to get through this awful time’? ‘

Is this an opportunity to rethink day support and services?’ and in the best places…‘if we rethink how do we make sure we create something better that works for everyone’?

That it took something as awful as a pandemic to force such a rethink is interesting, but the fact that these questions are being asked, and that we are being approached to help find the answers is exciting. As long as the creation of something better, that makes more sense to everyone, is genuine of course…and not just another massive cost cut under the guise of consultation at a time when that is the last thing people need.

You won’t be surprised to learn that we have tried to avoid partnership work in areas that we suspect have money firmly in the driving seat!

These areas and others have happily accepted that genuine conversations with stakeholders combined with real coproduction and creativity that starts with people and community is the way forward.

We know that whatever emerges from this process we will at least have a strong voice on the strategic planning table and that is a great place to start.