aides lack health insurance. On average, they make
just over $23,000 a year.
Low wages are a constant issue—and have actually
declined 6 percent in the last decade. “I only have $15
today,” said one aide who chose to remain unidentified.
“The bank is going to charge me a $35 overdraft fee.
How am I going to eat?”
But if working full-time at $10 an hour doesn’t put food
Until 2015, home-care workers were exempt from
federal minimum wage requirements and overtime, a
sad vestige of policies dictated by Southern lawmakers
during the New Deal. Now that aides, especially live-
ins, are due raises and eligible for overtime, many of the
agencies they work through have reduced their shifts.
on the table, how will working part-time?
The aides interviewed for this story—most of whom
would not give their full names—describe immense
challenges. Some clients, they say, are overtly racist; other clients and their families treat the aides
as though they don’t exist. One aide was struck by a
client but had to give two weeks’ notice to get another
placement. Another was fired after revealing she was
pregnant. Another complained that her agency refused
to pay overtime.
Some aides describe taking people with dementia to
the restroom countless times a day, being accused of
stealing $1 from the table, being forbidden by clients
to sit on the furniture or answer their personal calls.
One aide could not work for more than a year after
undergoing hand surgery, covered only by charity care.
She got by on fumes, financially.
But with few options, the aides toil away, some
driven by a passion for the work. Mary, 54, tries to
treat her clients the way she hopes someone would
treat her parents.
“It gives me more strength, more energy to work
with them, no matter what they do to me,” she says.
“My mother could be in that state of health. Am I going
to throw her away because she’s screaming all night?
This has helped me with my job...helped me be able
to cope with it.”
Mary was a public-health superintendent and nurse
back home in Cameroon. She left her three teenagers
behind when an invitation from her brother in the
United States paved the way for a visa. Upon arrival
here, she was struck by Americans’ unwillingness to
care for their elders.
“Here, ‘Can you change your mother’s diaper?’ is a
problem for them. They will puke,” she says. “Some
of them don’t even visit their mothers once every six
months, not to mention having to take care of them
in their house.”
Mary has chronic back pain, which was not helped
by recent surgery. She was out of work for eight
months. When a client fell on her, she was reinjured
and filed a worker’s compensation case against her
he neglected smoke-alarm-battery chirps
in the stairwell of Mary’s apartment in East
Orange. The rent is $700 a month. She has
decorated the place with a blue-and-white
plaid sofa given to her when Patsy, a favorite former client, moved from an apartment to assisted living. Patsy
gave Mary her bed as well.
Aides frequently try to keep track of and help each
other. Mary recently traveled to Patsy’s retirement community half an hour away to visit her and settle a nagging question. An aide working there had passed away
and Mary wanted to find out who it was. When Mary
saw the dead woman’s picture, she realized she’d played
cards with her and was quite upset. Mary later heard of
another aide who was found dead in a client’s garage;
the grapevine of aides had passed her picture around,
as no one knew how to find that woman’s next of kin.
Mary deleted the picture from her phone.
Mary knows firsthand the many ways the job can
affect one’s health and well-being. She remembers one
difficult woman she worked for as a live-in aide. The
agency had sent at least 10 aides to the woman’s apartment in a month. The woman would not let Mary sit
on the couch; and even though Mary worked a 24-hour
shift, she would not let her sleep.
Until his daughter
took over his care,
Lisa Morris worked
as a live-in aide
for John Homza,
and helping the