Report details future needs of Soldiers’ Home

  • The Soldiers’ Home in Holyoke. STAFF FILE PHOTO/Carol Lollis

  • An ambulance arrives at the Soldiers’ Home in Holyoke on March 31. Gazette file photo

Staff Writer
Published: 11/13/2020 4:52:43 PM
Modified: 11/13/2020 4:58:11 PM

HOLYOKE — The state has released the findings of a needs assessment to plan an expedited capital project at the Soldiers’ Home.

The report by the architecture firm Payette calls for the implementation of adult day health services, a significant renovation or replacement of the current 235-bed facility to create a smaller 180- to 204-bed facility, ending outpatient services, and phasing out the existing 30-bed domiciliary.

“Updated infrastructure, including layout and HVAC systems, would be important tools to combat COVID and other infectious diseases,” the report states. “While interim measures to reduce numbers of beds in rooms have been helpful and refresh projects have addressed these issues in the short term, the home and its veterans of today and tomorrow need a longer-term solution that is more in line with small home design.”

The state hired Payette in the wake of the COVID-19 outbreak at the facility that led to the deaths of at least 76 veteran residents. Western Massachusetts veteran advocates have for years called on the state to make improvements at the Soldiers’ Home, including the construction of a new building at the site.

Payette’s recommendations were made after a 12-week rapid planning phase. The firm interviewed community stakeholders, veterans organizations and other experts, and analyzed demographic data and information about other services available in Western Massachusetts.

“They were very collaborative, they included us every step of the way,” said John Paradis, a member of the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home Coalition, a group that includes local veteran advocates and family members of current residents and those who died from COVID-19.

In an announcement about the report, the administration of Gov. Charlie Baker said Payette has been “conditionally selected pending execution of a contract” to lead the next steps in the project: the design and planning phase. The firm intends to submit an application for a federal Department of Veterans Affairs, or VA, state home construction grant by an April 15, 2021 deadline.

An adult day health program would allow veterans to receive medical services and evaluations, socialize and get meals while also providing family caregivers a break, Payette found.

As for reducing the size of the facility, one reason for that approach is an expected decline in the number of veterans in Massachusetts in the coming decades. But the report said that a key driver for moving to a “small house model” is to respond to future changes in veteran needs as the facility’s female population and need for small specialized care units grow.

The report also found that the outpatient services currently offered at the home — dental, optometry, ophthalmology, podiatry, hematology and oncology — are small and underused. Because the VA has outpatient facilities throughout the region, the report suggests phasing out those services.

Finally, the report recommends ending the Soldiers’ Home’s domiciliary program, which was created in 1972 to support veterans at risk of homelessness but not yet in need of long-term care. Payette found that the program “has not evolved to meet the changing needs of veterans or care models for residential rehabilitation programs, a void which has been filled by other nonprofit programs in the area.”

In an interview Wednesday, Paradis said Holyoke Soldiers’ Home Coalition members were still reading the report and would have more to say in the coming days.

“But from what we have initially observed, it is very strong and we are extremely pleased that the state design team is recommending what we have advocated for,” Paradis said. “And that includes our most significant areas of interest.”

In particular, Paradis singled out the adult day health care program, early designs including a community living center model to allow camaraderie among veterans, and the inclusion of private rooms and baths, which could help avoid a future COVID-19 outbreak like the one that rocked the facility in March, April and May.

“That was ultimately our major area of recommendation for infection control reasons,” he said, “but also for privacy and dignity for the veterans.”

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