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Jason Toews and fifi (the band)

Geriatric Authority of Holyoke, August 2014 (Part 2)


Click here to see Part 1 of this article, which contains my brief overview of GAH history and the photos we took after the facility closed.

Unlike other abandoned places we have photographed, we actually got to meet some of the ex-staff members of GAH and listen to their stories. Several of the former staff members (all women) meet once a month at a local 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.

They had a lot to tell me about GAH – why they loved it, how it changed over the years, and why it closed. The rest of this article is comprised of their responses to my questions. Interviews were conducted via Facebook and in-person over large plates of seafood. I have replaced names with initials. Archival photos were provided by Amy Owsiak (thanks, Amy!).

Just to preclude any possible unpleasantness, I should probably add that any opinions expressed in the interviews excerpted below are strictly the opinions of the people being interviewed. Okay, Legal Department? Okay.



What made GAH special?

The people we worked with!

I think it was because it was local people. It’s like working in a city hall or in a public works department – everybody knows each other. When you talk to this person, you know where she lives. You talk to her, oh, you remember exactly where she went to school.

She’s related to her, and she’s related to me – it becomes like a family. Maybe I’m not related to D, but her son worked there, and my stepson worked there, we have connections to each other’s families.

Plus the benefits were good when I first started. Fifteen sick days. And we were paid beyond minimum wage.

Not much! I was hired in 1983, and started at $3.40 an hour.

In 1976, I was paid $2.76 an hour! Which was a little better than minimum wage.

There was a list of people who had filled out applications – it was hard to get a job there.

It was hard to get a room there! 240 beds, and they were always full.


What was GAH’s mission and did it change over the years?

To give ALL elders shelter. To protect and to provide care with dignity and respect. Our personal mission was to treat the residents in a manner that we would expect our own loved ones to be treated.

Give residents peace of mind, a place they can call their own, be happy and enjoy their place at home. Everything was taken away from them from a cold hearted people.

We cared for everyone, no matter race, creed or if you had money or insurance. We accepted everyone into our family and they became one of us. We were invited into their families as well. Our mission was to give the best care to the most needy in our fine City of Holyoke. It was an amazing place to call home.


Was there ever a conflict between what staff saw as the mission, and what management thought? Or what the patients thought?

Lots to say, but no comment.


Was there ever a time you felt that the needs of the organization outweighed the needs of the patients?

As bad as things were getting I feel that the residents were taken care of. The residents were upstairs a lot, especially with no elevators working most of the time and staffing issues at night and money put up for activities seem to disappear so staff would pay for it out of their own pockets.

Money was a problem from the mid nineties forward. With small exceptions I felt the resident needs were always met first. Activities was always short changed, as they really had to work for donations.

There was no money! The patients were slighted because of poor business management. It’s not a popular thing to say but I do think closing was the right thing to do. The building could not sustain itself.


My impression is that GAH catered in particular to people with fewer resources. Is that accurate? What can you tell me about the class/race demographic of the patients at GAH? What about the staff?

The preferred payer patients went to the competitors then GAH took what was left.

I believe we had mostly white residents with the exception of the last few years when we were more diversified with more Hispanic residents, also had a few African American residents. Years ago we did a monthly ethnic meal to give everyone a feel for different cultures, recently though we did have a few more Spanish food items on the menu. We loved ALL our residents no matter what race, although some of them didn’t always like us! LOL As for staff management always seem to be white (with a few exceptions) with a mixture of races in all other departments.


Tell us how you came to work at GAH, and why you stayed.

I came to GAH in 1991 from Brooklyn. As an occupational therapist since 1984, GAH was the best place I have ever worked. We had a rehab department of 20-30 people, OT, PT and Speech and provided amazing comprehensive care to all our residents. There was no therapy by the minute! We all worked together for the benefit of the residents. This was my first job in MA and I still have the friends I made on day one at GAH. It was an amazing time and the best part was that all the residents as well as the rehab staff and Nursing all loved what we did there and we have the best memories from that time. Unfortunately, PPS came into play and cut our rehab dept. to 4. After that they outsourced therapy, and it was never the same. I will never forget the residents, staff and that orange building where we used to watch cars skid in the snow on the corner!

I started in 1981 as a sophomore in high school stayed til Dec 1986 left to be a military wife then returned in 1990 to April 2014,I stayed because I thoroughly enjoyed my job and meeting new people and some became my close friends I still have today. Was it perfect? No, but I knew the grass wasn’t always greener on the other side so I stayed.

I looked for a part time clerical job to supplement our income and was hired as a ward clerk in 1981 for the hours of 6 pm to midnight 3x week. As the children got older I took a day position and eventually full time. Always loved spending time with our residents, listening to their stories and learning that you never know what life brings.

I stayed because the long time employees and the residents all became part of my family. As most of them were either from Holyoke or the surrounding communities you felt a strong sense of community which was something I wanted in my life. The nurses including nursing supervisors were devoted and helped lift us up to become better people. I will always love the Geriatric Authority. It has enriched my life.

I started working there in 1983 until April 25 2014. I stay because I love my job and also because of the residents they made my day along with my coworkers no matter what you were going through when you went to work you were stress-free. Sometimes you had bad days but 90 percent of the time we were family.

I started volunteering with Dean Tech H.S Cosmetology group in 1986 doing the residents’ nails. I was 14. I started working for the GAH in 1990 at 17 years old in the nursing homes Activities Department. I moved all over the place until I found my home in the business office, until September 19, 2014. I stayed because I fell in love with the residents and staff. The people of the GAH filled a void. They became family very quickly and many are still in my heart, both residents and co-workers, and touched my life in an extremely positive way. Sometimes it was hard to separate where my personal life began and were work ended. These wonderful people cared, even the ones who were a pain in my ass. When something happened in our personal life (whether resident or staff), we came together and supported the person in need. I love you guys!! Thank you all for being so amazing!

I answered a craigslist ad and started shortly after that. I fell in love with the residents on my first day and my coworkers soon after that. You ladies were there for me when I saw some of my lowest points!!

I didn’t stay cause of the ADMINISTRATION for sure it was the RESIDENTS and co workers.


Was your lengthy tenure typical of GAH staff? Or was there a lot of turnover? For either answer: Why do you think that was the case?

Was there 7 years

11 years but the last six months a nervous wreck!

20 plus for me

Was there almost 21 yrs.

When I first started there in 1990 I met several employees who were retiring after forty years of employment with the GAH. The turnover rate in nursing had to be the highest out of all the departments – the pay was low and the work was plenty. None of us long term employees stayed for the money, I promise you that!!


Without breaking any confidentiality guidelines can you tell me about some of your most memorable patients?

One of the residents loved dancing – any music she could hear, she would do this (flutters hands in the air). And then I stand her up, and I dance with her. Then she got transferred, two days later she died. She tripped on a slipper. The residents loved Pokemon, bingo, and especially HAPPY HOUR LOL AND POPCORN. I miss them.

It was hard to keep relationships professional when you fell in love with a resident, especially those who had no visitors or family. In the early 90’s I fell in love with a woman named I. She made me laugh more than anyone ever could. L touched my heart and became part of my family. MJ was everyone’s family. She was a big pain in the butt sometimes, but I think that’s what made me love her so much. MJ would defend the staff and was active in every aspect of the home. We could all write a book on MJ. There are way too many to list, but these three folks touched my heart the most. I am so grateful to have each and every one of them as they enriched my life and helped me to grow into the woman I am today. The advice and wisdom they provided was priceless.

MJ was a big part of my life there, both good and bad, yes she was a pain, but she was also one of the biggest supporters of staff. Thank god she is no longer alive, as this whole closure would have killed her. I also had a fav on B2N–SJ, she would watch the evening news every night and come out to tell me what the lottery numbers were and whether or not I had won, as she knew my daily number.

“Oh, you have the most beautiful blue eyes I have ever seen. And that sweater! Did you knit it yourself?” MM would say that to everybody for a cigarette. Everybody had beautiful eyes. I heard that before she became ill, she was a quite successful employed woman at Steiger’s. Not a hair out of place. Something happened… I think she had a drink too much.

She was a cool lady. She scared my Dad into giving her an entire pack the first time he met her. I had to go back into the nurse to report it.

J would always try to steal kisses from the girls if you were walking by. In the early eighties we had a resident EB – he would come to the kitchen every day looking for cookies. Sweet man reminded me of Humpty Dumpty.

We had a resident that would drop what he had in his hands so he can see the CNA bend over to pick it up, lol.

AM – she was a handful when she first arrived… She would pull the fire alarms so that she could tell them we were holding her hostage.

AM – she had been a resident forever, wheelchair bound. We had to tell her that her son was dying. That was very hard.

We had a resident – she was so pretty, I can picture her now. Later, her daughter was also a resident. We had many things like that – mother and son, husband and wife.

My grandfather was a resident. I used to spoil him! I knew he wanted egg on toast – “If you want it, you’re gettin’ it!” He got whatever he wanted. When he died, the CNAs and the nurses were crying right along with me.

My favorite resident was my father. He was there for two and a half years.

LM… A man of few words… “I love you F#*&ing B%&ch” all with a smile. If he had enough, he would pack his few things and wait at the nurses’ station for the bus til it was time to eat, then head back to his room and unpack.

And of course there was RN who always had a smile and who would love to flirt with Millie and the other girls in the kitchen. And who could do a 1000 pc puzzle faster than anyone I ever knew.

RN was mute. At that time, I was a cook in the kitchen. He would be sitting by the door, watching me cook and everything. Around 11 o’clock or something I would give him a snack. He was my baby. If I moved to the other room, he would be like (energetically points at watch). Because he knew the time. It was like, “Hey, it’s time for us to go over there!”

Everybody loved him. He would tell on us, he would make fun of us in the office… We gave him an ID badge, like our employees, because he watched everybody’s time! We made it out to say VP. Eventually they said, “this is against the rules, he can’t wear it.” We still let him have it.

When he was dying, he went to the Holyoke Hospital. He was comatose. I got in bed with him, and I held him. He was in a coma, but he sensed me. And the day after that, he died. I went to his funeral, I went to his wake…

S on B3 – loved her, but crazy as can be. She’d sing Bill Bailey all day long – “Won’t you come home, Bill Bailey?” She would get right into it – “I’ll do the cookin’ honey!”

There were very few residents that didn’t pull on my heart strings. They were all unique in their ways, from different walks of life, who all had stories to tell and I found them all irresistible. Loved them!


A question for the Dietary Aide (19 years at GAH) and Nutritionist’s Assistant (32 years at GAH): Did you have any experiences with residents who had peculiar dietary requirements, or residents trying to skirt the rules, etc.?

They always wanted to cheat!

Some people would only eat certain foods. Like grilled cheese. They would eat grilled cheese three meals a day if they could.

Or a hamburger.

And if the dietitian wasn’t in that day, I’d have to call her up and ask if she would allow it.


Did you have any family members who also worked at the GAH?

You would say, “my kid needs an after-school job.” And HR would say, “Sure, have them come in and fill out an application.” If they had an opening, they would be hired first. That’s how municipalities take care of each other. As a result, we all felt connected.

My Mom, my son, 2 cousins…

Both of my children worked there part time after school in the kitchen and even later while in college during summer break.

My daughter worked in the kitchen.

My Dad! My cousin JS worked in Activities, Her Mom EB was a CNA and Housekeeping, R in the ADH, Her son ML in the Kitchen, EG & AG in the Kitchen, LS in the Kitchen, AL was a CNA, I didn’t even realize I was related to BB for the first couple of years we worked together.

My sister was a CNA.

My sister and I worked in billing; my daughter as an RN.


What was the biggest / most profound change you witnessed during your years at GAH?

For me it was going from 240 residents and 2 daycares to 1 daycare and 70 residents. So much empty space that became storage for EVERYTHING! For us long termers it was insulting at times for the new hires to come in bitching and complaining about things when we had sacrificed so much to keep the facility afloat… working short, no raises, less sick time etc. I don’t think people knew – including board members – that some were doing multiple jobs for the same pay with NO thanks from Administration!

When we downsized from 240 to 120 and then could not maintain that census after awhile. It was so profound to shut down the B Building. To me, GAH will always be the B Building.

In 1996 the way Medicare reimbursed healthcare facilities had a major change on not only our facility, but healthcare in general. I think it was 1997 when we started, by closing down what was the Alzheimer’s unit first. It was devastating as the staff on this unit fell in love with the residents and mission of the Alzheimer’s unit. This was the beginning of the end, not only for the B Building but for the GAH as a whole. I believe the Medicare PPS change was our biggest and most profound change. Everything else seemed to be a slow death with unsupportive politicians and a mission that caused a loss in revenue on a regular basis.

They closed the B building in 1999-2000. Don’t forget, we had residents like MG (our friendly ghost), walking around the place with her braids and her little basket… She was single all her life. One day in the 1970s she retired, didn’t want to cook for herself, said to her doctor, “I want to go to Geriatric Authority.” She got a voucher to go into a nursing home. She stayed with us for 40 years. And she was not the only one like that – our longest resident was R, who was actually admitted in 1944. But she was truly ill – she would not have been able to live on her own. People who today might live on their own, back then were admitted to a nursing home if they wanted to. When that changed, suddenly there was an abundance of nursing home beds, and nobody could fill them.

Nobody wanted to become a nurse – it was easier to become an LPN. Then they said LPNs are on the way out, you gotta be an RN or have a bachelor’s degree. Now you needed smarter people, and it was a lot of hard work. We never had enough nurses. I remember in the 90s we were always scrambling – they were going to Puerto Rico, trying to get people to come here and become nurses.


How did working at GAH change you? Or: What did you learn, about the world, about the elderly, about yourself?

I learned the the grass is never greener. And I miss that place the staff and residents every day.

I was influenced through the wisdom of the residents first. The advice from this hard working generation was priceless. The thing I tell my own children the most is that in all my years of receiving advice and wisdom from these amazing people is: Most people don’t necessary regret what they have done in their lives as they have learned valuable lessons from them. The regret comes with the things they didn’t do or accomplish in life. I also want to mention that we had some of the most incredible staff. They were understanding and supportive, even more so when I stumbled. Remember I grew up inside these walls. Thank you to all of you as I would not be who I am without all of you helping to mold and shape who I am today. And those of you who fed me on a regular basis, I want to thank you for all of your help molding and shaping my big butt!!

I first started at GAH at the age of 18. The time I spent there confirmed my love and respect for the elderly, and motivated me to seek my childhood ambition of becoming a nurse. To this day, geriatric nursing is where I want to be.

I started there at the age of 16, pretty shy girl. Over the years as I got to know my job better and get more confident I could see myself becoming more outspoken and trying to be an advocate for the residents and for the staff being that we mostly had a lot of teenagers at night it was neat to see their interaction with the residents. I was also nicknamed the mother hen of the kitchen but don’t know if that’s a compliment or not…


What was your favorite thing about working at GAH?

The residents!

The family atmosphere. Even when we disagreed or didn’t see eye to eye on a subject we found a way to make things good for the residents as a team. That team changed from time to time, but the mission always stayed the same. We were the land of misfit toys! One big dysfunctional family with a common goal to make a home for the folks who lived there.

Being able and willing to help those that could not help themselves. Without any funds from administrator… staff and residents’ families pitched in and donated time, money, decoration and goodies.

I miss going there with my grandkids and painting and cleaning nails for the residents.

After ten years I left it, but I miss the residents forever. You never forget them. My children, who worked there when they were in high school back in 1990, they still remember residents that were their favorites.

For the residents, it was their home, you know what I mean? They went into the kitchen if they wanted something, they would come down and get a snack, bang on the window… it wasn’t separate.


What was the worst thing about working at GAH?

The many contradictions by management – one week it was okay to do something then the next week it wasn’t.

The dislikes are the same in every job. The pay sucked, management didn’t always agree with the staff and such.

Working under staffed.



I’ve heard that GAH had a few ghosts. Confirm or deny?

There were a lot of strange happenings throughout the buildings, especially the B building where the ghost of MG would often be seen in the kitchen. If you were there very early you would see shadows hear noises really strange things would happen. I don’t doubt it many souls had left the facility in the years that it was there so I believe it.

Confirm! Especially the B-Building. MG is one, she more than likely is still there. She was a staff member first, then a resident. My hubby will attest to seeing one when he was plowing the B-Building parking lot one night after the building had closed – a male figure on B3 watching him out the window. I remember in the 80’s working 11-7 on B3N and a call bell would ring every single night at the same time, we would shut it off only to have it go back on. Maintenance checked the wiring, nothing wrong, it was an empty bed in a 4 bed room, and the other 3 residents were not physically able to get out of bed and push the call bell. We started to say “knock it off!” after the second time, and it would stop. Until the next night.


What are your happiest memories from GAH? Stories that make you smile or laugh.

One resident, SZ… She had been with GAH for several years before going on the Hospice Program. She was failing, refusing to eat, resulting in weight loss etc. She also stopped speaking – she had not said a word in months. NOTHING!! Well one evening when I was staying late doing Hospice, I was trying everything to get her to eat. She would purse her lips together and turn her head in refusal. I say to her, “What can I get you? What can I do to get you to eat?” To my shock and surprise, she answers with, “Can you get me a pound of Bologna?” I nearly fell off the chair!! That was the beginning of a 6-7 month turn a round for her – she began eating (especially chocolate ice cream), asking for her cane, and asking for me by name. It was a awesome time for her and a very rewarding feeling for me.

…so did you get her that bologna?

I would have, had her diet allowed it. However I did give her everything yummy that puree would offer!

I have so many happy memories, mostly involving the residents and all the different parties and things we did with them but also with my co-workers baby showers birthday parties… even though sometimes we wanted to kill each other we were always there in the end specially when someone lost a loved one we were there to help them through the pain so it’s very strange now.

3rd shift wheelchair races in hallways while residents slept.

I laugh to my self every time I remember a male resident on B2N (EB) who had cataract surgery, for the longest time after he would pull his lower eyes lids down to anyone who would give him a moment, and ask them “Can you see my Cadillacs?”


What are your saddest memories?

The saddest memories are when we get so attached to the residents that when they die it’s heartbreaking, also when our co-workers die. I can remember so many from my past; we had a nurse with ALS, we had some with cancer and some that never woke up, being they are our second family we take it as a loss. The saddest memory for me has to be without a doubt last March when we first found we were closing and seeing our precious residents be sent away to different facilities separated from the friendships they had made along the way.

LR with the ALS was the saddest, she died the same week they walked me out the door for not seeing eye to eye with management, in the span of a week, I lost a job and a best friend.

Also when a patient heard that one of their children had died. No parent needs to hear that, but it was even sadder when it happened to one of ours.

The closing was the biggest kick in the stomach, but not necessarily my saddest moment. I was so angry when we closed that I couldn’t be sad until I actually saw them leaving for new homes. Then I went back to pure anger and disappointment after they were all gone. It was the saddest when we had to see a resident suffer, and eventually die. I still miss MJ and my L, and too many others to list. The loss of a loved staff member hit hard, L’s death still affects me today and I’m sure she will stay with me forever. R.I.P. L, and most recently G, who has a new grandbaby today. They were two of the most loving souls you would ever meet. OK, now I feel like shit.

Nursing homes are hard to work in because you get attached to patients and staff and then they die, go home, or the staff is let go for some reason. We all worked so hard for that place!

The day we lost AG really got to me, and the loss of one of my co-workers MB. There were so many residents, I often think of things they did or said, (ie) MB’s laugh and let’s not forget Patches!


Why did GAH close?

Because some people too worried about filling their own pockets instead of taking care of the needs of our elderly. Karma’s a bitch – they will soon end up in a nursing home and they better hope it’s a good one where management puts the elderly first.

How do you not pay the bills when you have all those people counting on you? Really WTH!

One of the deadly sins: greed!!!!

Because unlike other nursing homes we took everyone regardless of what kind of insurance they had, plus in the past poor mismanagement of funds, spending foolishly on things not needed. We were fortunate to have been given several second chance funds but willingness of others to help us ran dry. I guess too many bridges burned:(

We helped and treated every resident like they were Private Pay, even when they couldn’t pay at all. The last two years we took some huge monetary hits. We spent a boat load of money on new offices and cosmetic makeovers. We played musical offices with the new Management, and with every change we spent money on new paint, new fridges, a big screen TV and other nonsense for those offices. We also increased wages in the new management team. Our management salary were much higher than they were with prior administrations. The biggest hit came from the Mayor’s office. The Mayor refused to sign off on documentation for the State and we lost more than three hundred thousand dollars in reimbursements from Mass Health in two years!

We had problems for a long-long time, but the worst was 2014 when we all lost our 1st home, our job, our residents. Holyoke mayor cared more about the needle exchange program then our residents.

Insufficient reimbursement from the state, competition from other facilities, a dysfunctional board of directors, lack of oversight from those that appointed the board, and a little bit of sabotage… Just my opinion.

No oversight from those that appointed the board, and they knew what was going on. So sad how the elderly, many of whom supported the place for years, got screwed, and many dedicated employees out of work. Where was the press on the last day?

A lot of underhanded CRAP went down, yet the loyal staff hung in there because they loved their residents and needed their jobs. I know for a fact the city council, and some of the board members knew what the heck was going on. I recall a meeting I attended and asked a question, the board member was not allowed to answer by GAH’S head honcho (what a rat). The Board knew food and drinks were being ordered and used at a different venue. Oh yes, the wicker furniture made its way back to GAH once the news reporter was made aware.

When people forget what human decency is and become greedy vultures, this is the outcome.

Because you had a city that gave up on the elders of their community and the employees who cared for them. We needed a strong leader to say, “Let’s fight to keep these residents, and let them stay where they feel safe, happy and loved.” But there was no one in this city that was up for that challenge.


Tell me about the final days of GAH.

By March, three or four residents a day were being discharged. By then, it was obvious they were going to close.

J asked me if they were going to keep her TV and her belongings. I said, “No, that’s yours!” And she said, “Well, they’re taking my home.”

I was working as an activity aide at the time. And the residents would come to me, and they would cry. “Why is it that we have to move? I could get money, I could pay… Did I do something wrong, that they’re throwing me out of here?” and I would say, “No. You didn’t do nothing wrong. Don’t worry, you’re gonna go to a better place, they’ll take care of you, you’ll be fine.” And they would say, “But I don’t want to go. This is my home.” I was afraid of them moving, because I knew once they moved, they would die. And lots of them – maybe 3,4,5 of them – died as soon as they moved. We went to see a few of them in their new nursing homes, and they were hugging us and asking us about other residents, because they had been separated. “Where is my girlfriend?” They were told that they would go together, to the same nursing home with their friends. No. They separated them. They got emotional, they got sick. We haven’t been able to visit all of them, but we want to. So they know we didn’t forget them.


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