Geoff tells how hiring personal assistants can help you live the way you want to
Getting support with everyday tasks and activities can make all the difference in giving you freedom to live the life you want and Geoff Spink is an expert on what works and what doesn’t.
With a busy career as a writer, speaker, broadcaster and trainer; and a wealth of consultancy experience, Geoff knows how important it is for life to run smoothly.
He has four personal assistants supporting him at home and two more giving him essential back up in his working life. His story is a great example of how employing personal assistants can work well.
“Living as an ex-pat in Africa gave me my first insight into hiring help at home”, says Geoff. “Out there it’s a normal part of life to have a few people carrying out essential, everyday duties. There were five people in the house where I was living, cleaning, cooking, driving and gardening; it was liberating for me, as a disabled person, to be able to get on with life whilst someone else got on with sorting out the day to day stuff.”
“When I returned to England I ‘imported’ the elements of my experiences in Africa to foster that freedom in my life at home. The pressures of caring for me, on my wife, had been a major factor in our divorce, so employing people to take that on made perfect sense. A business trip to Thailand for the BBC clinched it for me when the BBC Access Unit enabled me to take a personal assistant with me. It made life so much easier, and as soon as I got back I applied to the Access to Work scheme for funding for a full-time assistant. When the BBC Access Unit was outsourced to Capita, my PA, Jenny asked if she could work for me directly, so I used my Access to Work funding to take her on independently.”
Life with Personal Assistants
“Having two personal assistants at work keeps all the bases covered” Geoff explains. “They are both self-employed; one for three days a week and the other for two days, and give me all the business support I need from arranging trips abroad to writing letters, and generally making sure things run smoothly.
The four PAs that help me at home come in every morning and evening – one is self-employed and the other three are PAYE employees. My local DPO (Disabled People’s Organisation) manages the payroll for me.
My assistants will do all the domestic tasks I’m not able to do – like shopping, cleaning and cooking, driving me to places and making sure that sheets and towels are changed regularly.
They also take care of my more personal needs like washing, dressing and making sure I’m dressed for business”.
“It’s good to have more than one assistant so that if one isn’t available for any reason, there’s always someone to cover. It’s not a good idea to put all your eggs in one basket when it comes to getting support. It’s also important to make sure you get someone you can work with. Anyone can do everyday tasks, and provide support – but not everyone can do it well. For me it’s about having someone intelligent who respects you as a person and doesn’t make choices on your behalf, but can still work on their own initiative. One prospective PA I interviewed was a vegetarian and was averse to cooking meat for me – not the right fit at all!
The perfect PA is someone who gets to know you well and can anticipate what you need. It takes time, and can be a bit of a learning curve when someone new comes in; and in general I find that female assistants are more relaxed with this kind of approach than males.
One of my assistants recently fixed an ill-fitting oven shelf for me. I didn’t ask her to and she didn’t mention that she’d done it, but it got done. That’s what a really good assistant does.”
Recruiting a Personal Assistant
Getting recruitment right has been an interesting journey for Geoff. “When I first started, I put an ad on Gumtree.” he explains, “I got a lot of applicants, and went through quite a few assistants before I felt I’d got it right.”
“I drew up a job description and sent it out to applicants telling them to have a good look and make sure they were happy with it. Some people felt I was asking them to be a domestic slave but others really ‘got’ that I need a lot of support.
Nowadays I advertise through an online portal aimed at Polish applicants, called Londynek. I advertise in both English and Polish – and I find that Polish assistants are hardworking, conscientious and honest. Nearly all my staff are Polish, apart from one of my work assistants who is English, as I needed the right level of English for my business.”
“In the early days I used to follow up all applicants myself, before interviewing them. Now, one of my assistants, Sylwia, acts as the first point of contact on my advertisement and filters the applicants for me. She knows exactly what I’m looking for.”
“When it comes to the administrative side I make sure I have time sheets for my team and adequate records are kept. All of my assistants are EU Nationals so don’t need work permits – this may change following Brexit so I will need to make sure I keep an eye on the legislation. I don’t insist on DBS checks but do ensure I get references for all the people that work for me. I have to have employers liability insurance and contribute to my employees’ pensions – organisations like NEST can organise the pension side for you. I also have to make sure that my assistants are on my car insurance.”
Geoff is no stranger to managing staff, so has not found the task too onerous.
“Some assistants inevitably become friends over time,” he says “but some will never get that close to you; and whatever happens you have to be the boss. I’ve known some people with disabilities to treat their assistants like automatons as they don’t have the skills to manage them, whilst other, more vulnerable people have allowed themselves to be taken advantage of.”
“You have to have a strong character to manage people and step in if something’s not being done the way you want it done. It is a skill and if you feel you don’t have the capacity for it, find someone who does and let them manage your care for you. I manage the care for my elderly mother as she would find it too overwhelming – so I can make sure things get done properly and speak up if something isn’t working.”
“I have had to let people go on occasion. There was one experience where an assistant was stealing from me, but it was short-lived as I found out pretty quickly. We didn’t involve the police and were able to resolve it ourselves – but obviously I had to fire them.
Luckily that kind of thing doesn’t happen often and managing staff is usually pretty routine. The main thing to remember is that it’s all about dignity and respect – on both sides.”
“A great help with the issues of managing staff is NCIL’s ‘Rough Guide to Managing Personal Assistants.’ "
Visit the Independent Living website to read the Rough Guide To Managing Personal Assistants
A supportive experience
For Geoff, having personal assistants in his life has been a largely positive experience.
“I’ve had assistants for 14 years now and I’ve had so many experiences of exceptional support that I’ve lost count. I didn’t have reservations about people coming into my home as it had worked so well in Africa, but the more intimate aspects of care can be embarrassing, especially when you’re dealing with new people. That’s just one part of the experience, though,” he comments.
“Of course there are advantages and disadvantages of being supported at home” he acknowledges, “but the advantages of not having to struggle on your own far outweigh the disadvantage of giving up some of your privacy.”
“I did think about having a live-in assistant at one stage but decided against it. If that time came, I would have to reconfigure my living arrangements so that my assistant had self-contained accommodation. My home is my home and having my own space is important.”
Geoff knows a number of disabled people who struggle to retain staff. “For me, hanging onto staff is a good measure of how happy they are and whether you are fulfilling your job (and it is a job) as a good employer. A couple of my assistants have been with me for nine years and another has been with me for six and a half years. I take from this that I must be doing something right,” he says.
Geoff uses his own funds to top up social care funding from his local authority: the £9 an hour pay rate hasn’t changed for a decade and he doesn’t think it’s fair to expect people living in the capital to receive less than the living wage. “Not only that, but I would probably struggle to recruit new staff. I’m now paying my home PAs £11 per hour.”
A word of advice
After 14 years Geoff Spink has learned quite a lot about having personal assistants and has some really good advice to give other beneficiaries considering doing the same;-
“Decide whether you have the skills and abilities to manage a team” he stresses “and if you haven’t, don’t be afraid to ask someone else to do it for you. Also, make sure that you’re comfortable with the concept of hiring people to support you – it’s not for everybody.”
“Make sure you don’t rely totally on one assistant – have a few, and always have the number of a good agency to hand as back up if things go awry. And always check the references of anyone you employ.”
“One big piece of advice I’d give people is not to feel tempted to push family members into providing your care at home – especially your children. Some people do choose to do this as a business arrangement but I have found the employer/employee relationship much less complicated.
The bottom line is ‘treat your assistants as you’d like to be treated yourself’. That way you can’t go wrong”.
For more information, visit our Employing A Personal Assistant section.