When a homemaker from the hospital failed to show up to help Alice Austin after she returned home following surgery for a hip replacement, Austin found herself alone in her apartment, unable to perform many ordinary activities of daily living.
"I didn't have breakfast because there was nobody here to give me breakfast," recalled Austin, 63. For two weeks she sent out for lunch from a delicatessen and relied on her daughter to come and fix dinner in the evening.
Fortunately, Austin's friends soon found Mary Adams, 51, to help with the cooking and cleaning. Adams is paid through the Title XX-funded chore aides program.
Nancy Skuba, service chief in the city's Social Service Division, said approximately 550 chore aides clean, shop and cook for almost 600 clients. The clients are usually elderly or disabled people who have demonstrable need for domestic help and who have met low-income eligibility requirements.
Chore aides range from retirees and pensioners to welfare recipients and housewives who are supplementing their regular income with the jobs.
Mary Adams has been important for Austin's recovery. Although Austin could get around with a walker after her release from the hospital, she found movement painful and slow.
"I needed somebody to bring my food to me in bed," she said. "It was a long time before I could get to the table."
Adams, who works three days a week for a total of 12 hours, has gotten more than monetary satisfaction from her job. A recipient of Social Security disability because of an arm ailment, Adams, a former nurse, had not held a job for five years before working for Austin.
"She's helped me as much as I've helped her," Adams said. "The job shows me I can do something."
In another case, Ernestine Prioleau, 60, a chore aide for 76-year old Arthur Farrington, has gotten similar benefits from her job. Because of a circulation problem in her legs, Prioleau finds walking paintful.
"I used to stay in bed half the day," Prioleau, a former cafeteria helper, said. "Now in the morning I have something to get up for."
Besides cleaning and cooking meals, Prioleau is available for emergencies since she lives in the same apartment building as Farrington.
Farrington, who has emphysema, remembers one instance when he called Prioleau for help because he had acute difficulty with breathing.
"I got her on the phone and said, "Please come down here right away," and I couldn't say no more," he said.
Prioleau, who has been Farrington's chore aid for more than a year, splits her work in the morning and evening, for a total of five hours a day.
Both Adams and Prioleau were matched with their clients by word-of-mouth from friends and referrals from social workers. Skuba emphasizes that the chore aide program does not generally seek out or place workers. Instead, potential clients find domestic help on their own and introduce them to the program to be paid.
Some chore aides have recently expressed dissatisfaction over low pay, poor benefits and lack of training programs. Joining with other domestics employed by the D.C. Department of Human Resources (DHR) they have formed a bargaining group, the Organization of Personal Care and (Home) Chore Services, to upgrade working conditions. Chore aides, who earn $2.90 an hour, are considered self-employed by DHR. They have Social Security taxes paid by the program, but do not receive paid holidays or insurance benefits.