I wonder if I will wander

Remember when Academy Award-winning Henry Fonda’s character, Norman Thayer, lamented in “On Golden Pond”?

“I couldn’t remember where the old town road was. I wandered away in the woods. There was nothing familiar. Not one damn tree. Scared me half to death.”

While picking strawberries, Norman suffered the panicked onset of dementia in which the familiar became forgotten.

Honestly now, how many of us watching that scene nearly 40 years ago thought that “ol’ coot” could someday be us?

Flash forward to 2017. More than 5 million of us are afflicted with Alzheimer’s. By 2050, that number will be more than 16 million.

Across the nation, 6 out of 10 Alzheimer’s family caregivers say a loved one has done the heart-wrenching Norman Thayer shuffle and wandered off — the majority more than once.

This Alzheimer’s-related wandering is not only more prevalent now but can be life threatening. An Alzheimer’s patient wandering outside can quickly become confused, lost, injured, and even die from exposure or other risks. In fact, the survival rate of a wandering Alzheimer’s patient decreases by 50 percent every 24 hours.

Complicating matters, some Alzheimer’s wanderers don’t consider themselves lost. Instead, they are often 100 percent consumed with escaping somewhere, searching for something, or running away from an imaginary threat.

Search efforts can be lengthy, expensive and ineffective. On average, it takes nine hours to find an Alzheimer’s wanderer.

That’s why law enforcement agencies, including our very own Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Office, are implementing new programs like Project Lifesaver.

Participants of Project Lifesaver are given special wristbands with transmitters. When a participant wanders off and law enforcement is notified, a Search and Rescue team uses the specialized tracking equipment to locate the missing wanderer.

With Project Lifesaver, the average time to locate a wanderer is only 20 to 30 minutes from deployment.

And there are other options. There are apps for locating lost children or vulnerable adults. Other apps set alarms so that your cell phone alerts you when an afflicted loved one wanders outside a predetermined perimeter.

Also, check out the resources of the Prevent Wandering and Missing Senior networks on the internet.

I know this is an unpleasant subject, so let’s end on a lighter note: Seth Rogen, comedy writer and millennial megastar, founded Hilarity for Charity to help families struggling with Alzheimer’s.

Not surprisingly, when he recently spoke before an 18-member Congressional committee, there were 16 empty chairs.

Rogen said this: “Americans whisper the word ‘Alzheimer’s’ because their government whispers the word ‘Alzheimer’s.’ And although a whisper is better than the silence that the Alzheimer’s community has been facing for decades, it’s still not enough. It needs to be yelled and screamed to the point that it finally gets the attention and the funding that it deserves and needs.”

Of course, Rogen had to add: “I dream of a day when my charity is no longer necessary and I can go back to being the lazy, self-involved, self-medicated, man-child I was meant to be!”

Until next time … keep thinking the good thoughts.

— For more than 30 years, Rona Barrett was a pioneering entertainment reporter, commentator and producer. Since 2000, she has focused her attention and career on the growing crisis of housing and support for our aging population. She is the founder and CEO of the Rona Barrett Foundation, the catalyst behind Santa Ynez Valley’s first affordable senior housing, the Golden Inn & Village. Contact her at info@ronabarrettfoundation.org. The opinions expressed are her own.