Concerned parties back small-house model for Soldiers’ Home, vets facilities

  • Signs, flags, flowers and wreaths at the entrance to the Soldiers’ Home in Holyoke, April 2020. STAFF FILE PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • The Holyoke Soldiers’ Home, pictured in June 2020. Staff File Photo/Carol Lollis

  • The Holyoke Soldiers’ Home, pictured in May 2020. Staff File Photo/Carol Lollis

Staff Writer
Published: 7/16/2021 4:47:37 PM
Modified: 7/16/2021 4:47:43 PM

HOLYOKE — Gov. Charlie Baker signed a bill into law in May authorizing $400 million in bonding for the design and construction of a new Soldiers’ Home in Holyoke. Now, a couple of entities are trying to add their voices to the discussion of how to handle this project.

Dignity Alliance Massachusetts, a statewide grassroots coalition of aging and disability service and advocacy organizations, and Disabled American Veterans, a nonprofit providing support for veterans and their families, are advocating for a small-house model as opposed to the construction of another large facility, which they say is outdated and unsafe.

Those involved with these organizations want to see a small-house model of pods implemented in Western Massachusetts and, eventually, the rest of the state, maintaining this will add to veterans’ comfort, dignity and overall well-being.

“It’s very difficult to understand the state’s choice to rebuild a 235-bed institution, when that’s not even what the (U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs) is prioritizing,” said Jennifer Kaplan, an Amherst attorney and member of Dignity Alliance Massachusetts. “And it’s not what the state is doing for the rest of their aging population or the individuals with disabilities. There’s a real push to provide care in homes and communities, because that’s where people want to be. And that’s where veterans want to be.”

The bill Baker signed into law also authorizes the issuance of $200 million in general obligation bonds to increase geographic equity and accessibility related to continuing long-term care services for Massachusetts veterans not primarily served by the soldiers’ homes in Holyoke or Chelsea.

According to Priscilla O’Reilly, communications co-chair of Dignity Alliance Massachusetts, the primary emphasis would be on home and community-based services. The idea is for the small-house facilities to operate throughout Western Massachusetts within 30 to 45 minutes of all veterans.

Under their proposal, the replacement facility in Holyoke would accommodate 125 to 135 veterans, as opposed to its current larger capacity, who would live in small house units, preferably in 10 to 12 individual buildings. Those who might have been served in Holyoke would then live in small houses closer to their families.

The aim is for the main building on the Holyoke campus to be developed to serve as a hub for the operation of home- and community-based services for the western part of the state and as a statewide research, training and educational center that could be operated in partnership with the University of Massachusetts system.

“I want to be very clear, we are absolutely thrilled that there is investments going into the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home and that needed improvements are going to be made there,” said Coleman Nee, CEO of Triangle Inc., which partners with schools, community organizations and businesses to promote integrated school-to-work career training and placement.

“Obviously, that facility is older. It was built in the ’50s. The fact that the commonwealth is willing to commit so much money to a facility out there is really encouraging and, obviously, we support investments in our veterans, particularly one of that magnitude.

“I think where we have some opportunity to weigh in here is around what is actually going to be constructed for all that money,” he said. “I think that’s really where the rubber meets the road.”

Nee was the Massachusetts secretary of veterans services from 2010 to 2015 and is a U.S. Marine Corps veteran of Operation Desert Storm. He is also an advisory board member of Veterans Homestead.

James Lomastro of Conway said small-house models are a 21st-century approach to health care and come with more options, such as when and where to eat. He said they also carry a lower chance of spreading infection. He holds a doctorate in policy, research and administration from Brandeis University’s Heller School for Social Policy and Management and has 40 years of experience as a senior administrator in health care, human services, behavior health, and home- and community-based services, having spent 20 years as a surveyor at the Commission on Accreditation of Rehabilitation Facilities throughout the United States and Canada.

Kaplan referred to Western Massachusetts as the “neglected red-haired stepchild of the Boston establishment.”

“We want this investment in the community. We want the jobs. We want the care of our veterans,” she said, “but it just does not make any sense the mechanism they have chosen for this, which is an institutional model when it’s not what they’re doing for the rest of the population, and it’s contrary to the state’s legal obligations under the Americans with Disabilities Act.”

Nee said small-house designs of pods on the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home campus can better meet the area’s needs, and that can have a ripple effect. He also said veteran demographics are changing significantly, with women and people of color making up more and more of the population. Older veterans are dying off rapidly and others are moving to warmer climates. Nee said Massachusetts saw a 43 percent decrease in veterans between 2000 and 2020.

“That’s not just a Massachusetts phenomenon, that’s a nationwide phenomenon as well,” he said. “It really speaks to not having a one-size-fits-all approach to long-term care.”

Reach Domenic Poli at or 413-772-0261, ext. 262.

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