Alabama has three state homes for aged and infirm veterans. Come November, the state Department of Veterans Affairs expects to open a fourth, and there may not be another one like it anywhere.
The Col. Robert L. Howard State Veterans Home sits on 27 acres in Pell City, about half an hour from downtown Birmingham. It can house up to 254 residents and is more like a small village, with five “neighborhoods” that have patios, pathways, porticos and landscaped courtyards. For more self-sufficient veterans, it will offer an apartment-type complex known as a domiciliary. At its heart is a large “town center” with a soaring stone chimney that evokes an upscale mountain lodge, and even a non-alcoholic sports bar called the “Stars and Stripes Cafe.”
“Our objective was to make this a place where veterans could come and live…with all the comforts of home, with dignity and serenity and not a place to go and just to languish, and kind of pass away,” said retired Rear Adm. Clyde Marsh, the state commissioner of veterans affairs. “We thought veterans deserved better than that and that’s why we created this.”
“I wouldn’t mind living here — and I don’t need to go. But it is just that nice.”
In size and in its number of residential units, the Howard complex will be larger than each of the state’s three existing veterans homes — the Bill Nichols home in Alexander City, which opened in 1989, and William F. Green in Bay Minette and Floyd E. “Tut” Fann in Huntsville, both of which opened in 1995. Each of the existing homes has 150 beds, none has a domiciliary, and each is at capacity. Together, they have a waiting list of more than 300.
In 2005, a feasibility study commissioned by the state indicated a need for a fourth home, and construction of the Howard home began in January 2011. Doster Construction of Birmingham is the prime contractor, and the Birmingham firm of Williams Blackstock did the design.
“The problem with a lot of (senior) living facilities is they’re very institutional, they look like hospitals,” said Williams Blackstock president Joel Blackstock. By contrast, he said, the Howard home was designed “to promote social interaction on numerous levels…a sense of community rather an institutional feel with just a maze of hallways with doors.”
The new home’s namesake, Howard, was an Opelika native and Congressional Medal of Honor recipient who was one of the most decorated veterans of the war in Vietnam. An Army Green Beret, Howard died in 2009 and is buried at Arlington National Cemetery. State officials are hoping some of his relatives will be among the dignitaries present when the facility is formally dedicated.
Largely because of its size and other features, the Howard complex’s price tag is about $41 million. A grant from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs is paying about two-thirds of the bill. Most of the structure is in place, and the remaining work consists largely of tweaking fixtures, bringing in furniture, and clearing other items off final punch lists. While that work is ongoing, so is the hiring of staff. Kim Justice, the executive director of the state’s veterans homes, says HMR Alabama, the firm that manages the other three state veterans homes, will manage the new one, and will hire about 300 people to work as nurses, dieticians, activities coordinators, housekeepers and laundry operators, and in other capacities.
The complex, which is visible from I-20, sits along a thoroughfare appropriately named Veterans Parkway, within sight of the St. Vincent’s St. Clair Hospital, and less than a mile from the campus of Jefferson State Community College’s St. Clair-Pell City Center. Ken Rollins of Oxford, a member of the state Board of Veterans Affairs and chairman of the board’s veterans home committee, said the presence of both institutions will enable residents of the Howard home to feel connected to the outside world. So will the home’s porches and its abundance of windows.
“One of the things (home planners wanted) was not to isolate the veteran off in the woods where they’d just be looking at squirrels,” Rollins said. “Here they’re going to be able to see the world going on…and not feel like they’ve just been thrown off of the path. There’s something to view at all times.
“A lot of effort was made at making this a home – H-O-M-E,” Rollins added, “and not just a facility.”
Justice said she and Marsh gathered information for the home’s design by visiting some homes that had elements of the neighborhood concept. One was a veterans home in South Carolina. Another was St. Martin’s in the Pines, a retirement home in Birmingham. Also in Alabama, they sought recommendations from staffers at the other three state homes on ways to make the Howard home work better for both its employees and residents.
Of the new home’s 254 beds , 174 will be for residents needing skilled care. A majority of those will live in three neighborhoods, each of which has three houses, and each house can accommodate up to 14 residents in separate rooms. Each house has a living room and dining room and each neighborhood has a whirlpool bath. Alzheimer’s and dementia patients will live in two other neighborhoods in four houses, each of which can accommodate up to 12. Wide corridors connect all the neighborhoods to the town center and an adjoining “Hall of Honor” that serves like a Main Street with “shops” such as a therapy room, a barbershop, a chapel and the sports bar. All the home’s rooms, including those in the 80-bed domiciliary, are private with a bathroom and shower, and a wider-than-normal doorway. Each room in the domiciliary has an added feature, a kitchenette.
According to state figures, Alabama has about 400,000 veterans. Nearly 40 percent of them – or about 151,000 — are 65 or older, and most of them are male. Because of that demographic fact, the majority of the Howard home’s residents will be male. If enough women vets come to live in the home, “we might group (the) females together in a house,” Justice said.
“We’re excited,” Marsh said. “It’s going to be, I would say, a leading-edge home. In fact, we are probably the first in the state to have a home this size that meets all the requirements of the neighborhood concept.”
“I think we’ve created something real special,” Blackstock said.
Because of its added features, including the domiciliary, staying at the new home will cost more for its residents than staying at the other three veterans homes. At the existing homes, the daily cost to the veteran is $11.64, Marsh said, with federal and state per diems making up the rest of the bill. At the Howard home, the daily cost for a resident will be $24. That rate still is a fraction of what it can cost someone to stay in a private nursing home, where Justice said the monthly bill can be as much as $6,000 per month, or about $200 per day.
For more information about the Robert L. Howard home or one of the three existing state veterans homes, contact your county veterans office. In Jefferson County, call (205) 521-7305 in Birmingham or (205) 481-4117 in Bessemer. You can download an application to live at one of the homes through the veterans homes link at the state Department of Veterans Affairs website – www.va.alabama.gov