David Keaton (right) poses with his mother Lillian Keaton, 92, at Maine Veterans Home in Caribou, where Lillian has lived since last summer. David Keaton has said that if the Caribou facility closes, physical challenges would make a transfer to another facility difficult for his mother. Credit: Courtesy of David Keaton

CARIBOU, Maine — When 92-year-old Lillian Keaton of Caribou moved into the local Maine Veterans’ Homes facility last summer, she and her family assumed that she would live out her final years in a place dedicated to serving veterans and their spouses.

Now Keaton is one of 57 residents in the Caribou home who could be displaced if Maine Veterans’ Homes’ planned closure goes into effect around May 1.

Nonprofit Maine Veterans’ Homes announced in late February that it would close its Caribou and Machias homes this spring, citing a decline in the number of veterans, employee shortages and longstanding financial losses. That resulted in public outcry from legislators, medical providers and family members, who say the nonprofit made the decision without consulting with anyone or considering the impact on veterans and their families.

Though Maine Veterans’ Homes officials have offered to relocate residents to the Bangor and Augusta facilities, many Aroostook County family members remain reluctant, citing the longer travel times and emotional burdens the move would place on residents who would be separated from their loved ones. The Bangor and Augusta facilities are approximately three and four hours away from Caribou, respectively.

Those are reasons why Keaton’s son David Keaton and his four siblings, two of whom live locally, said they would not consider transferring their mother downstate.

“My brother and I live in Caribou. I’m my mother’s point of contact [for MVH],” David Keaton said. “If she lived downstate, I would not be able to visit as often or be there to attend to her needs.”

Lillian Keaton’s husband Rogis Keaton, who died in 2010, served in the U.S. Army during World War II. After his death, she lived alone in their apartment until severe arthritis forced her to seek out nursing home care last year. She is one of 22 military spouses who call the Caribou facility home.

Though Lillian Keaton has a wheelchair, she has been bedridden recently due to her arthritis. His mother’s physical challenges and bonds with the veterans home’s staff would make the transition to a different nursing home difficult, David Keaton said.

In the meantime, he and family are putting off discussions on finding a new home for his mother until they know if the Legislature will approve LD 2001, an emergency bill introduced by Maine Senate President Troy Jackson that would help cover Maine Veterans’ Home’s deficits for the last two years.

“We’ve talked about [the closure] with Mom, but we try not to dwell on it,” David Keaton said. “I tell her that I’m doing everything I can to keep the place open.”

Keaton was one of dozens of the veterans homes family members and employees who testified in favor of LD 2001, which would require legislative approval for any veterans home closure and provide temporary funding to help keep the Caribou and Machias facilities open. The Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee voted unanimously to send the bill to the state Senate, which will review it this Thursday.

Maine Veterans’ Homes has said that the emergency bill won’t fix the problem and that it would close the two facilities anyway.

For now, the future remains uncertain for veterans like 95-year-old Joseph Bouchard Jr. of Caribou, who served in the U.S. Navy during World War II and has lived at the Caribou veterans home for five years.

Bouchard’s son Michael Bouchard, also of Caribou, said that he felt “dumbfounded” after learning of Maine Veterans’ Homes’ plans to close the home. His father’s dementia has worsened in recent years, which would make transfer to a new facility, especially to Bangor or Augusta, difficult for his mental well-being, Bouchard said.

U.S. Navy veteran Michael Bouchard performs “Piping the Side” on a boatswain’s, or bosun’s, pipe in front of the Maine Veterans’ Home in Caribou on May 21, 2020. Credit: Chris Bouchard / Aroostook Republican

Prior to the announcement about the closures, Bouchard had considered transferring his father to the Caribou or Presque Isle Rehab and Nursing Center, which have larger units dedicated to dementia patients. But there have not been appropriate vacancies at either facility.

“As far as moving him to Bangor, that would be ridiculous,” said Michael Bouchard, also a Navy veteran. “I’m waiting to see [if LD 2001 passes], but I’m really not sure what to do if the home closes. Dad would adjust eventually, but [a move] would be a real shock for him.”

But for Karen St. Peter, moving her mother, Velma St. Peter, to the Bangor Maine Veterans’ Home seems like the only realistic option if the Caribou facility closes.

Velma St. Peter, 80, has lived at the Caribou veterans home for 10 months. Her late husband, Maynard St. Peter, was a U.S. Army veteran. Like Joseph Bouchard, Velma St. Peter is a dementia patient and would struggle with any transfer to a new home.

Though she has three siblings who live nearby, Karen St. Peter serves as her mother’s power of attorney and said that a move to Bangor alongside her mother would be best, if the Caribou home closes.

Karen St. Peter (right) visits with her mother Velma, 80, at Maine Veterans Home in Caribou. Credit: Courtesy of Karen St. Peter

That move would also have a ripple effect on local veterans who face homelessness.

Karen St. Peter is the finance and fundraising director for the Dahlgren-Skidgel Farm of Hope, a four-cabin facility that serves veterans who are homeless in Caribou operated by United Veterans of Maine. Five of the facility’s eight beds are occupied, she said. In 2021, the facility provided 2,490 bed nights for veterans.

Farm of Hope staff assist veterans with finding employment and stable housing. If their services moved to Bangor, United Veterans would rely more on local, non-veteran agencies like Aroostook County Action Program or United Way to fill in service gaps.

If that happened, Karen St. Peter said she would worry about homeless veterans who might need the specialized care that Maine Veterans Homes provides but be unwilling to travel downstate.

“When we look for placement for our residents, they don’t want to leave Aroostook County,” Karen St. Peter said. “In the future, they’re going to refuse care. Then DHHS will step in and they’ll go unwillingly.”