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Richard Moore on Holyoke’s Soldier Home

Honor Our Aging Veterans, but let Holyoke’s Soldiers Home Fade Away. 

Honor Our Aging Veterans, but let Holyoke’s Soldiers Home Fade Away.

By Richard T. Moore

In his famous address to the United States Congress on April 19, 1951, exactly seventy years ago, General Douglas MacArthur ended his valiant military career with the words of an old ballad that was sung in the barracks in many posts around the time of the First World War.  He quoted one memorable phrase from the ballad’s lyrics, “Old soldiers never die, they just fade away.”  In recent years, we’ve lost many “old soldiers” from World War II, Korea, Viet Nam and other of America’s wars. I hope that we never let our honored veterans to “just fade away!”  All of our military veterans are especially deserving of our respect and support for their commitment to duty, honor, country.

Recently, the Massachusetts House unanimously approved a $400 million bond issue to replace the Holyoke Soldiers Home whose residents suffered and died from COVID-19.  Four-hundred million dollars seems inadequate an amount to honor the veterans who live in Massachusetts, often suffering from both visible physical wounds of war and mostly invisible mental health wounds from aging.  Sure, the cost of about $2 million per bed may seem a high price, our veterans are certainly worth that much and more.  The money is not the point if it’s going to really provide care for our deserving veterans.

The tragedy that unfolded during the COVID-19 Pandemic and the loss of more than 70 veterans who were receiving long-term care at the Holyoke Soldiers Home, similar to many other stories about the staggering rate of illness and deaths, is nothing short of disaster. Residents of large congregate settings like Holyoke, were especially vulnerable from the virus, but many of the problems existed before anyone ever heard that dread pathogen.  The design of the Soldiers Home, and its size were among the serious issues that made matters worse when COVID-19 arose.

While it is a state facility supported by the taxpayers of Massachusetts, the Holyoke Soldiers Home primarily serves veterans from Hampden and Hampshire counties in western Massachusetts.  Many veterans and their families, such as those from Cape Cod, the North Shore, Central Massachusetts, and even Berkshire – our western-most county – don’t seek to go there because it is so far from their loved ones and its large, impersonal design are not attractive for any eligible veterans, just as the current model of civilian nursing homes is not desired by older adults throughout the Commonwealth. 

And there’s a good reason for veterans and their families to prefer Holyoke to a traditional nursing home since those who are accepted are not required to spend down their assets to qualify for Medicaid.  Residents of the Soldiers Home are allowed to retain their home and assets and leave an estate for family members when they die.  However, few want to choose this lucrative option because of the distance from family and the style of care.

Further more Holyoke does not serve women veterans and very few minorities despite it being located in Holyoke with its substantial Hispanic population and near Springfield with a relative significant African-American census.  Women veterans, in particular, who may have been traumatized by abuse and discrimination during their military careers, would be unlikely to apply to a male-dominated facility such as Holyoke even if there was a new building. 

Unfortunately, the Baker Administration has failed to consider other more modern and humane options for long-term care for our veterans and have advanced a design for replacement of the Holyoke Soldiers Home that is not even consistent with the modern trend in housing and care of the US Veterans Administration.

The VHA Small House Guide, formerly known as the Community Living Centers Design Guide was developed for both new construction and renovation projects for the Department of Veterans Affairs. The resulting design solutions can be either free-standing, attached to, or embedded within an existing facility.  The design provides enhanced, expanded guidance for creating an environment in which residents that require extended care services are at the literal by the resident and involves the resident and family, when available, in decisions regarding care. This commitment to cultural transformation was made by VHA in 2005, in keeping with shifting standards in the nursing home industry.  It is a model known as the “Greenhouse Project” that is being successfully used to improve skilled nursing for other older adults in Massachusetts and across the country.

Imagine how many small house veterans care facilities could be built for $400 million dollars.  They could be built all around the state close to where veterans and their families now live.  Worcester County might be able to have at least three – one in Worcester, another in north country and one in the south or west of the region.  Berkshire county would also be a likely location for three more.  Cape Cod, where many of our veterans live is another potential site for at least three more.  However, if all of the $400 million is spent in Holyoke on resurrecting a 19th Century model of care, it’s highly unlikely that state government would invest more money on this more modern small house model.  The attitude of policy makers, as is so often the case, is likely to be that the veterans long-term care problem has been fixed!

It’s true that some veterans, primarily in the greater Holyoke area, have put their support behind the Baker Administration’s plan for a big, new replacement facility. However, no veteran — not even those in Holyoke — was presented with an alternative vision, one reflecting best practices in long term care where veterans receive the necessary support and services in home-like settings in their own communities. We should listen to leaders of the Disabled American Veterans of Massachusetts and nursing home reform advocates of Dignity Alliance Massachusetts and take a little more time before sinking huge sums and a lot of political capital into a project that is destined to be outdated before its doors are ever opened.

Let’s spend the $400 million on our veterans, but let’s do it in a manner that will benefit more veterans around our state and will provide the best person-centered care that we can offer to so many of our neighbors who so valiantly and selflessly service in the cause of freedom!

The writer is a former Massachusetts state senator who chaired the Committee on Health Care Financing in the Senate and is chair of the Dignity Alliance Legislative Work Group.

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