Holyoke Soldiers’ Home Coalition weighs in on future designs for upgraded facility

HOLYOKE — Leaders of a grassroots coalition organized to back reforms at the Soldiers’ Home in Holyoke recently met with a state-appointed architectural team to weigh in on an expedited redesign.

Members of the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home Coalition on Tuesday announced they met with the Payette architectural design team to discuss an expedited capital project, billed as “reimagining” the long-term care facility. Among their recommendations are a 120-bed addition, an outdoor space for dementia patients and an adult day health program for veterans.

Soldiers’ Home residents and staff were ravaged by COVID-19, with 76 veterans succumbing to the virus at the peak of the pandemic. The coalition was formed by former administrators, veterans, family members of veterans who lost their lives and other advocates to call for staffing and funding reforms, plus a complete redesign of the facility.

Gov. Charlie Baker vowed to push an expedited capital plan along with federal Veterans’ Affairs officials as part of his response to the plight of the Soldiers’ Home. Coalition members were invited to speak with the architectural team on Sept. 15 for a nearly two-hour discussion.

“The coalition was impressed with the Payette team’s sincere interest in receiving feedback and hearing about our ideas for a future Soldiers’ Home in Holyoke that, we hope, will set the standard for all long-term care facilities for state veteran homes in our nation,” a spokesman for the coalition said.

“We genuinely believe this is our state’s opportunity to create a new campus for veterans that will prevent any future outbreak of infectious disease and will be the model for care,” said John Paradis, former deputy administrator at the Soldiers’ Home and a member of the coalition.

He and former Administrator Paul Barabani retired or resigned in 2016, citing frustration with state and federal officials they said ignored their calls for more staffing and funding.

Hired as Barabani’s successor in 2016 was combat veteran Bennett Walsh. State officials subsequently heaped blame on him and his top staff for mishandling the COVID-19 response.

In addition to calling for modernized rooms, the coalition made 15 additional recommendations including increased space for therapies such as yoga and meditation; expanded clinical space; new policies around pet therapy and service animals; introducing a gaming center; and creating a Family Contact Area with virtual technologies for use during times of quarantining.

As veterans were dying and families were barred from visiting, many complained of having little to no contact with loved ones at the Soldiers’ Home — at times wondering who was living or had died. The facility has since reestablished outdoor family visits, but they have been intermittently suspended if any employee tests positive for the virus.

The facility was most recently closed to visitors from Sept. 5-19.