Ten years ago, most people did not understand the term ‘personal assistant’ in terms of social care, as they were simply called a carer or care worker. Now, the term is fashionable and I fear is used to define relationships that are not truthful to being a real personal assistant, far beyond the intended purpose.
The bottom line is there is a very big difference between a care worker and a personal assistant in terms of how they are employed, what they are paid to do and what qualities may be needed.
A care worker is mostly employed by a third party to ‘look after’ someone in a manner prescribed by the person who is ultimately paying for the support, usually in some kind of ‘care plan’. As a norm, care workers are generally required to minimise risk and protect the best interests of the person they are supporting. For many people, a care worker is exactly what is required and their role in social care should be celebrated, rather than portrayed as less good than personal assistants. There are also ways care workers can provide choice and control within the boundaries of their work.
While there is no legal or formal definition of a personal assistant, within the norms of independent living, a personal assistant is someone who is directly employed by someone who has the mental capacity to take responsibility for managing their personal assistants, even if that is with support or if someone else is dealing with the paperwork. If any of the factors are not in place, then they are most likely a care worker even if they call themselves a personal assistant.
It is often assumed personal assistants can be self employed for tax purposes but it is not that simple. By law, anyone who is self-employed can only be asked what to do as an end result, but they can not be directed in how they specifically perform their work. They are therefore responsible for their actions, providing those they work with service contracts, as oppose to an employment contract, where they have a greater say in their working conditions. Self employment can actually be more difficult for care workers since they do not have the same level of employment rights like holiday pay.
When a supposed personal assistant is directly employed by a family member, or anyone else, who then prescribes what should be done, requiring the worker to be accountable to the family member, rather than the person being looked after, then they are a care worker as opposed to a personal assistant. There is nothing wrong with this, but it is important to understand the difference.
Another tricky situation is where paid ‘personal assistants’ are in fact family members. While it may be suitable for a less immediate family member with a care background to be employed as a personal assistant, I do not believe it is truly possible to properly manage immediate family members especially when the relationship becomes strained and formal disciplinary action is required.
The reason why it is important to be strict to what is a personal assistant is because the central difference between them and care workers is they support people to take responsibility for their own actions, as opposed to simply ‘looking after’ and protecting them.
While a care worker is responsible for the wellbeing of those they support, the employer and user of a personal assistant is responsible legally and morally for their wellbeing. The role of a personal assistant, beyond the practical provision of care and support as directed by the employer, is to enable their employer to grow and develop, including supporting them to make their own mistakes to learn from.
This means the qualities required from personal assistants is often very different to that of care workers. Both roles have a place in social care and it is important to understand which role is most suitable for your own care and support needs.