Simone Illger knows how having a good PA can make life easier as needs change
With a successful career as a secretary behind her, in the private and public sectors, Simone Illger knows exactly how having a good PA can make life easier. She didn’t quite expect to be employing her own PA, but has now been doing so for many years; and as her care needs have changed so have her assistants. She is currently employing her sister and, as her story shows, it really works.
“I was always quite independent and managed a full-time job and housework with minimal support. I had a cleaner who did basic housework and ironing once a week.”
“When my daughter was born, I suddenly found it quite a struggle to manage caring for her alongside caring for myself and running a home. At around the same time I’d set up a National Charity for disabled parents and had heard a bit about Direct Payments working well for disabled people who were parents. I approached my Local Authority to ask about them, but Direct Payments had not yet been rolled out nationally and my Local Authority were not yet operating this scheme of support. I ended up having an assessment of need via my local authority and one day of care provided by an agency, but this proved totally disastrous. The agency carer was trying to take over looking after my daughter to allow me to rest – but what I wanted was someone to help with housework so that I could enjoy activities with my daughter. The carer’s visit was so stressful, I cancelled the care package and decided I was better to continue trying to manage alone.”
Car accident meant care needs changed drastically
“In 2002 I had a serious car accident in France and, having broken my ankle really badly, had my leg in plaster and couldn’t get around. I have short arms and was unable to use crutches, and complications in my recovery meant that I wasn’t mobile for about four to five years”.
“That was to change my care needs drastically” explains Simone. “Suddenly I needed help with everything – washing, dressing, preparing meals and drinks and getting my daughter to and from school. My house didn’t have a downstairs bathroom and I was unable to use the stairs and was forced to sleep downstairs and use a commode. I had an emergency care package put together but this was very basic - two visits a day only doing my basic care needs and without any regard at all for the effect of my incapacity on my daughter (who was just 4 years old). I was having to rely on other parents to do the school run and my husband at the time had to reduce his hours to meet the shortfall. This inadequate support drove our family to breaking point. I contacted the agency saying that I wanted to employ someone privately and explained my exact needs. Someone who could drive, be with me during the day to help keep my daughter safe (the school holidays were approaching), do the school run and take me to medical appointments – as well as the more practical stuff; preferably the same person, so we could get some consistency in our lives. They found me someone who lived close by, interacted well with my daughter and understood what I needed. It was great and it definitely averted a crisis.”
“Once my daughter was older and I was back at work, my support needs lessened for a while”, Simone says, “The level of support I need has varied quite a bit since then.”
Life with Personal Assistants
“Having personal assistants changed my life” Simone reflects.”I started to advertise, and to employ PAs who gave me small amounts of support, but on a regular basis. I got help with shopping, gardening, housework (not just cleaning) and some very personal stuff – including foot care. It felt like a huge invasion of privacy at first but it did help and took pressure off my husband. All my PAs were directly employed, as my one experience with someone self-employed wasn’t great; you end up arranging your life around theirs’ instead of the other way around.”
“At present I employ my sister as my PA, on an employed basis.” she explains “It works really well because we have a good relationship, it’s all official and, although we both enjoy being in one another’s company she works very hard – she’s very practical, fixing and sorting things out that I just couldn’t do. We tend to work together on things – she totally understands my frustration at knowing how to do things but not having the physical capabilities.”
“We’re both quite driven”, Simone laughs “We like to get things done. The only time she’s ever moaned was when I asked her to clean the venetian blinds – but who wouldn’t! Seriously, though, I still retain that professional “employer distance”, even though she’s my sister. The other day she pinched a grape from the fruit bowl and I laughed and said ‘I don’t think that’s allowed in your contract!’ – what I meant was, if she wasn’t my sister I would definitely have pulled her up on it. You don’t help yourself to the contents of someone else’s lunchbox when you’re in a work environment.”
“It needs to work the same way if your PA isn’t a family member. Some people become best friends with PAs but there’s a real danger in that – you have to be strong, have boundaries. I decide what time and day I need help and I’m not going to alter that to make it easier for someone who works for me.”
Recruiting a Personal Assistant
Before her sister became her PA, Simone recruited staff herself.
“In the very early days I put a card in the Post Office window”, she remembers, “Then I put an ad in the newspaper but it was very expensive. I also got some of my PAs through the (Reading) University Job Shop but, obviously, students come and go with their degree courses.
These days I would advertise on Gumtree – it’s all electronic which makes life much easier.”
“When I interview potential PAs I have a little spiel written on a sheet of paper”, Simone explains. “I tell applicants about me, my situation, my pets, the people who live here and what they need. I talk about why I need help, and the hours and days I need it.”
“I’m very clear about my needs. I go as far as to give applicants examples of why I need to have tasks carried out in a very specific way and say they may find me quite bossy and demanding. If they seem to understand that very basic thing, there’s a good chance they’ll work well alongside me. Once I have finished telling them about the role, I ask them to tell me something about themselves. Usually by the end of the process, I’ll have a good feel for whether or not they’ve got the potential to work for me. I can usually spot the things that might make the arrangement difficult.”
Managing Personal Assistants
For some people, becoming an employer can be quite difficult and Simone is keen to stress that managing your PAs is a skill, and something you may need training to manage effectively.
“It’s a big responsibility” she says “but you can get support through your local authority. There are lots of things to remember such as your legal obligations as an employer, pensions and insurance.”
“In terms of managing my sister, the arrangement is formal but flexible. She has a job description and a contract and a payroll company do the calculations and make sure she is paid for her hours – factoring in holiday pay, although leave arrangements are fairly loose.”
“My sister’s hours are quite ad hoc, but that’s because it suits us both at this moment in time. My husband is retired and can help me with everything from personal care to practical jobs but I don’t want him to do it because he feels he has to; my sister is paid to support me, but even with her we can be flexible because of my needs and the availability of my husband to help me. Her son sits his GCSEs this year so we know we’ll need to be flexible so that she’s around to support him on exam days.”
A supportive experience
On the whole Simone’s experience of having a PA has been extremely positive.
“One of my assistants worked for me for over 10 years, including over the period of my divorce from my first husband. She was totally reliable, and although she could be assertive, was also gentle, quiet and efficient. She walked all the way to my house when snow stopped her from driving – totally beyond the call of duty”.
“You can have issues. I had a great PA who was very young and had no experience when she came to me. It was her first job since arriving in the UK and I coached her, showed her how I liked things to be done and gave her a chance. This gave her the confidence to study for a Social Care qualification at college. That backfired slightly for me – her course got in the way of my needs and she became unreliable. We had to agree that she was unable to fulfil her contractual obligations. I needed support from my insurers with managing that fairly lengthy process, as if done incorrectly one could find oneself being charged with unfair dismissal which potentially bears serious consequences.”
“My sister is great. She does overnight stays if I need her to and we can share long drives. The arrangement works for her, too – it gives us time to be together and we are able to discuss and share other family matters such as the support that is required for elderly parents.”
Advice for other beneficiaries
Simone’s experience of having PAs to help her out makes her well placed to advise other people thinking about taking one on.
“Getting a PA isn’t an easy route to take but it can totally change your life for the better – in ways you might not even have considered,” she says.
“We (beneficiaries) are not used to asking for help but neither can we always be totally independent. We deserve the support we ask for – and I’d urge people to start living their lives instead of just ‘managing’ to lead their lives”.
“It’s a good idea to start small. Just because you’re entitled to wide range of support or a substantial care package, it doesn’t mean you need to take it all. Taking on a PA is a big responsibility, an invasion of privacy and requires management skills. It is in effect a part-time job. You need to be able to have difficult conversations at times but doing so will prevent small issues getting out of all proportion.”
“My advice to other beneficiaries is, if you think it might work for you, do it!”
For more information, visit our Employing A Personal Assistant section.