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Jason Toews and fifi (the band)

Geriatric Authority of Holyoke, August 2014 (Part 1)

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This piece of ground, on the fringe of a working class city, has been home to thousands upon thousands of elders in need. Despite the variety of names that have been placed upon its structures, a common element of compassionate, quality care has always been present. A well-deserved reputation of tender, hands-on care has been a permanent characteristic of the services rendered at this property.

For one hundred years, every minute of the day, concerned employees have been here rendering care. Despite the Great Depression, World Wars, epidemics, blizzards and strife, the structures on this site have been open to serve elders in need.

Timothy V. Cotz, Executive Director, Geriatric Authority of Holyoke, 1988.

In 1888, the City of Holyoke purchased a farm from Dwight Ives for $11,000. This 73.5-acre property was turned into a “poor farm” or almshouse, providing shelter and employment for able-bodied men who needed help.

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In 1897, two hospital wards were added, although a trained nurse was not hired until 1906. In 1913, in response to a newly-passed state law, the farm and hospital began accepting unwed mothers. The following decades tell a story of continued expansion of facilities and services offered.

From the Superintendents’ Report, 1932:

The total expense of maintaining the Holyoke City Home for the year was $39,258.38. The number of inmates did not fluctuate greatly, the average for the past year being 167. Of these, an average of about 38 were under hospital treatment, which in addition to preventing them [from being] engaged in any useful occupation, require more care and attendance than the other inmates. Deducting the amount of revenue received from the sale of farm products and board of inmates, $1,519.06, leaves $37,739.32 as the actual net cost of running the institution. This represents a net expenditure of $4.35 per inmate per week.

From the Superintendents’ Report, 1945:

The Welfare Board was considering a change… Instead of having a male superintendent with his wife as assistant… The Board feels an unencumbered woman could devote her time chiefly to the care and feeding of the inmates, the most important part of the home.

In 1954, the $1,200,000 Municipal City-Home Hospital was added.

From the Superintendents’ Report, 1954:

A report on the city farm operations for the year 1953 showed that the poultry and dairy supplies produced were: 3,079 dozen eggs; 1,750 pounds of butter; 104 gallons of cream; 43,800 quarts of milk.

Three years later, the City Farm program, which had provided meaningful work and shelter for thousands of poor and marginalized men, ceased operations.

1986 article from the Transcript-Telegram

1988 article from the Union-News

Full disclosure: All of the quotes and data in the first part of this article were taken from the commemorative booklet, A Century of Caring 1888-1988. Its tone is optimistic. The authors are justly proud of their history, and looking forward to greater expansion in the coming years. Reading it in 2014, after the final closure of the GAH, after parts of the property have been converted to a for-profit juvenile detention center, after the agonizing dispersal of the remaining residents and the dismissal of the remaining staff, it’s hard not to feel cynical. And angry. And deeply sad.

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In fact, the seeds of GAH’s demise can be found in a few passages from that same commemorative booklet. For example:

In 1969, an appeal was made to the state of Massachusetts to reclassify the institution from a ‘public medical institution’ to a ‘nursing facility.’ This set the stage for obtaining state and federal reimbursement for operations. No longer was the city obligated for money spent by the City Home-Hospital. (emphasis mine)

And:

Although the GAH is an autonomous agency, city officials play a significant role in certain decision-making areas… grants, contracts, or loans over $200,000 must be approved by two-thirds majority of the Board of Aldermen and the mayor… Since the GAH is non-profit, it must petition the city for municipal bond referenda… The GAH also pays an annual in-lieu-of-tax payment to the city based on the assessed value of the facility.

I’m no lawyer, but it all sounds a bit tangled to me. The city was under no obligation to cover GAH expenses. At the same time, the city had to approve any GAH requests for other kinds of fund raising. And then there is that “in-lieu-of-tax” payment… There’s too much information and contradiction to review in this article, but a little Googling will fill in the sad details. An uncharitable reading of the evidence would seem to indicate that GAH was a city facility as long as that served the needs of the people holding the purse strings. When that was no longer the case, GAH found itself abandoned. When there was a commitment in the Holyoke city government to provide services for those most in need – the poor and elderly – some requirements were overlooked and some rules were bent, just to keep GAH functioning. When that commitment evaporated, the bills came due, long-forgotten rules were rigidly enforced, and GAH was ultimately forced to close. The last few residents were scattered to the few remaining similar facilities in Massachusetts and elsewhere, in some cases far from their families.

When we were asked to photograph GAH, there were only a few staff members remaining. The adult day care program was still operating, on one floor of a building that was otherwise abandoned. Unlike other abandoned places we have photographed, we actually got to meet some of the ex-staff members and listen to their stories. Several of the former staff members (all women) meet once a month at a local seafood restaurant, to reminisce and to support each other during the sometimes-difficult transition to a new life outside GAH. I was surprised to hear that some of them had made it a personal mission to visit each of the final residents in their new homes. They stayed in contact with other ex-residents via email or phone. Their pride in their work, their heartfelt affection for those in their care, and their grief over the abrupt closure of GAH was obvious and palpable.

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They had a lot to tell me about GAH – why they loved it, how it changed over the years, and why it closed. In fact, those interviews turned out to be so interesting, so funny and sweet and heartbreaking that I found it difficult to edit them down to a manageable size. Even after numerous rounds of trimming, the interview section of this article was much too long. So I split the article in half, and moved the interviews to Part 2.

If you’re just here to look at the pretty pictures, scroll on down and have at it.

But if you’d like to hear the true story of the rise and fall of GAH, straight from the mouths of the strong women who ran the place, click here to read Part 2.

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