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Aids Those Ailing and Alone : Social Worker to the Aged Does Battle With System

A DAY'S WORK: One in a Series

September 01, 1987|LEE MAY | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Dianna Guinyard, a social worker who makes house calls in the most isolated parts of the nation's capital, parks her four-door burgundy Honda in the hazy sunshine, enters an old apartment building and takes the stuffy elevator to Edward Green's cramped fifth-floor apartment.

Green, a 69-year-old black man who retired from a restaurant dish-washing job in 1980, is living alone, wheelchair-bound. He greets her in blue shorts, white shirt and running shoes and produces a stack of medical bills he is unable to pay: $25.65, $35.76, and so on, until the total passes $200.

High blood pressure, diabetes, stroke all have afflicted him, he says. "I got every bad thing a person could have and still live."

And he is sick and tired of some voice on the telephone trying to collect a $428 doctor bill. "She was a foreigner," he tells the social worker. "She tried to run over you the way white people do."

Guinyard, who also is black, soothes him, promising to pursue Medicaid to see that the bills are paid. "My God," she says, "when they see all these bills, you'll get help right away."

Green is the first of several clients whose homes Guinyard will visit today. All will have something in common: They will be elderly, ailing and alone.

Guinyard, one of the legion of workers in Washington's bureaucracy, is a supervisor for a program run jointly by the city and a hospital foundation. As such, she may seem to outsiders to be merely part of "the system"--but that is not the way she sees herself.

"One city bureaucrat had the nerve to tell me I'm doing too much for my clients," Guinyard fumed. "My clients can't come out and fight the system. I have to do it."

That means, among other things, standing in long lines at Social Security offices for the needy people she assists, telephoning other social service agencies, arranging transportation and meals, finding housing and tracing lost or stolen checks.

"Sure you get weary, but you know if you don't do it no one will," she said.

Snakeskin Eyeglasses

Guinyard, a slender woman in low-heeled black shoes who usually dresses in muted, modest styles--except for her eyeglasses with snakeskin frames--is one of seven social workers at the Greater Southeast Community Center for the Aging, a nonprofit agency.

She works in the public housing developments, apartments and houses of southeast and northeast Washington, a mostly black area that is largely poor, crime-ridden and cut off from the rest of the city by the Anacostia River. It is where tourists never go. Black Washingtonians call it "Far East."

Is she afraid? "I would never allow fear to become a part of my life," Guinyard said, walking with brisk confidence through a housing development's deserted yard. "Can you imagine how that would intimidate me?"

But, if she isn't frightened, she isn't crazy, either. So, although she takes clients' telephone calls at all hours of the night and weekends, she admitted that she would never walk alone at midnight through some of their neighborhoods. And, she said: "One thing you always do is lock your car."

Her days are filled with staff meetings, telephone calls and paper work, and with visits to little stale-smelling homes with pictures of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. and John F. Kennedy on the walls. The home visits have made her more adept at navigating Washington's rambling streets than most cabbies. She must write narratives about each visit, each contact with "the system." And she dispenses as much psychological help as any other kind, becoming a surrogate daughter to the old people who are her clients.

The people she sees each day are part of "the other Washington." Their problems are so profound and so basic that they often pay no attention to the worldly concerns that so preoccupy official Washington and its hangers-on. At one home, a televised "special report" shows President Reagan speaking. No one watches. Someone turns down the sound.

Being black is an asset to Guinyard. It has helped her gain the trust of many black people whose only experiences with "the system" have been bad ones. "Washington is 70% black," she said, "and when I took this job I knew most of my clients would be black. They feel more comfortable sharing feelings with me."

Guinyard, who is deeply religious, has integrated her church life with her work. Often she rises at 5 a.m., takes tea and attends an hourlong prayer session at her church before making it to the office--about two miles away--by 8 a.m.

She participates in an "adopt-a-senior" program to help elderly church members. And, on her visits to homes, she often tries to enlist members of clients' churches to help them--using the "church network," Guinyard calls it. Sometimes she sees herself almost as a minister.

"I'm meeting the needs of people," she said. "That's what ministers do."

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