a man on a laptop in a Zoom meeting

Let’s speak about feeling at home – a webinar on homeliness in group homes, Andy Power

It’s the familiar smells and sounds that get me when I return home after being away. The sense of ‘feeling at home’ where we live is something most people cherish. For some, this feeling comes from the enjoyment of pets or the collection of old photos under the stairs.

What does home mean?

Home is more than a place. It is an idea and an imaginary that is imbued with feelings. So begins the book simply titled ‘Home’ by Alison Blunt and Robyn Dowling about the meaning of home. For many of us, home is imbued with feelings of belonging, comfort, and safety.  However, for some people, including those with learning disabilities in residential care or ‘group home’ settings, these feelings can be entirely absent. Indeed, for some, the home can be imbued with a sense of fear, alienation, and violence.

Despite change toward more individualised support, ‘group homes’ remain one of the main forms of accommodation for people with severe and profound learning disability. Despite looking no different to other houses in the street, the group home is defined as accommodation for between four and six people, where extensive or pervasive paid staff support is provided to the residents, both in the home, and when leaving it to use community-based settings.

For this reason, the group home is a ‘workplace’ with its own workplace culture and regulations. Consequently, group home staff and residents face complex tensions over professional and personal boundaries and group and individual demands.

While the sector faces an array of quality standards, sadly the sense of ‘feeling at home’ is not an outcome that is measured or spoken about. Once basic needs are met, there is no certainty that feeling at home is an experience that is cultivated.

Sharing what we have learnt

To help kickstart this conversation, and get people speaking about it, our collaborative project hosted a webinar on the subject, where we shared insights from research and policy. In attendance was an array of group home managers, NHS staff, and local authorities.

Christine Bigby, a leading guru in group home research, provided our opening address, reflecting on what has changed over the last 10 years since her seminal book on Group Homes for Adults with Learning Disabilities. Christine’s presentation served to highlight the building blocks of a service culture which can determine residents’ positive experiences.

Drawing on the insights of social geography, I shared some of the ways that people can cultivate a sense of home, through everyday routines, objects, and home-making practices. Home does not simply exist, but is made. In response, many delegates shared their own accounts of what practices and objects made them feel at home.

In helping to shape the sector, the policy landscape remains crucial. Deborah Chinn highlighted how the long-held policy aspiration of an ordinary life on an ordinary street remains hollow and perhaps co-opted. In its wake, policy has continually failed to create accountability for group homes providers being ‘homely’.

Sadly, one of the most recalcitrant issues is the high turnover by staff in the sector, a point highlighted by Tony Levitan in his presentation about evidence-based frameworks for improving quality in residential support. Indeed, for a quarter of group home providers, this can be as many as losing 6 out of 20 staff per year.

One glimmer of hope has been the growing acceptance of the role of experts by experience, in this case, people with learning disabilities, who serve as ‘quality checkers’ of group home settings. While in its infancy, the growth of user-led models of quality checking has been an important development in creating a more empowering culture for residents. As part of our study, Shalim Ali and Katy Brickley explored the many different variations that have emerged and sought to distil the important factors in shaping this practice.

We also heard from our expert panel, which included experts from the field, academics, our Advisory Group members, service providers and CQC staff.

The webinar took a small step along our journey, by getting people speaking about feeling at home in the context of group homes – an important message to take home.