Special Report: Before They're Gone

Baihly Warfield
Updated: February 19, 2018 08:52 PM

Ron and Mary Tarnowski were inseparable. 

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The couple lived just across the driveway on the same property as their son, Karl, and his wife, Bev. 

"They're in our hearts, and they'll be with us no matter where we go," Bev Tarnowski said. 

Ron and Mary passed away in early August after being missing for a week. Ron had dementia, and Mary was paralyzed on her right side from a stroke. 

"Papa died. He went and took his soul and grabbed mom. And they went to heaven together," Karl said. 

They were found on a remote road, their Tahoe stuck about a mile from the family's hunting shack. 

"That was kind of a hard place to go to for me this year," Karl said. 

Family, friends, police and even people they'd never met helped them search for seven days. 

"You get phone calls from a total stranger: 'My truck is full of gas. Where can I go?'" Karl reminisced. 

Finally, a U.S. Border Patrol search helicopter spotted their vehicle, one week after they had been reported missing. 

"He had walked to the long grass in the ditch. He made it through the woods," Karl said about his father. "But he fell short by 40, 50 feet maybe."

His mother had died in the vehicle. Jenna Pogorels with the Alzheimer's Association said it's common for people with dementia to try and return to places from their past. 

"Usually, there's a purpose in the mind of that individual. There's somewhere they need to go," Pogorels explained. 

She said six out of 10 people with Alzheimer's will wander. Alzheimer's is one form of dementia. 

"Anybody with memory loss can become disoriented and can become confused and wander off at some point," she said. 

That's why she encourages families to do their best to look for the warning signs. 

"We call them senior moments where you start to forget things more. But this is more than just forgetting something," Pogorels said. "This is memory loss that impacts your daily life."

Karl and Bev said Ron was forgetful, and sometimes he complained of not being able to remember things. But Karl said Ron was good at hiding it. 

There are 10 warning signs the Alzheimer's Association says to look out for:
1. Memory loss that disrupts daily life
2. Challenges in planning or solving problems
3. Difficulty completing familiar tasks at home, at work or at leisure
4. Confusion with time or place
5. Trouble understanding visual images and spatial relationships
6. New problems with words in speaking or writing
7. Misplacing things and losing the ability to retrace steps
8. Decreased or poor judgment
9. Withdrawal from work or social activities
10. Changes in mood and personality

Pogorels said once there is a diagnosis, they encourage families to make tough decisions in advance. 

"We always encourage families to be proactive versus reactive," she said. 

Like countless families, Karl wrestled with the difficult decisions. 

"Should he have not been driving? That's a tough call," Karl said. "It's the freedoms and the life they chose. And to take it away from them I think it would have been a pretty much impossible task."

The Tarnowskis had even gone to check out assisted living. Karl brought his mom and dad to Edgewood Vista. His dad said no. 

"I said, 'Mom. It's set up. You can move in here. You've been talking about a nursing home for awhile, so you can move in as soon as tomorrow if you want,'" Karl said. "She put her hand on my arm, and she said, 'No, Karl. I'm going to get better.'" 

"'I prayed to get better,'" Bev corrected. 

Karl and Bev were willing to do whatever the older couple wanted. So they accepted their answer and did not move them into a home. 

"You don't want them hurting. And I don't think they were," Karl said. "I think they were enjoying life too a little bit."

But after their experience, they encourage other families to look for help, including technology. 

"Elderly people generally wear one pair of shoes all the time. Get a chip and put it in their shoes," Karl suggested. 

"There are GPS systems that can be used as jewelry that have tracking systems attached to them," Pogorels said there is new technology every day to help keep ahold of your loved ones. 

What the Tarnowskis really want is a system used in several other states -- the Silver Alert. It's the vulnerable senior citizen version of an Amber alert. 

"(It) would be very, very, very, very helpful for any other families," Karl said. 

For now, they are trying to stay busy. 

"They're in our hearts, and they'll be with us no matter where we go," Bev said. 

Karl and Bev are building a new house in Saginaw, leaving behind the property they all lived on together. It's too hard to stay. 

If anything positive came from last summer, the Tarnowskis say it is the outpouring of support they felt from others. 

"We want to say thank you," Karl said. "Thank you, thank you for everybody and everything."

There has been another comfort in the time gone by since Ron and Mary died. They have visited Bev's dreams. 

"Let me know they're OK. Mom's up walking again," she explained. 

"Bev asked me, she said, 'Have they come to you yet?' I said, 'No. I don't want them to,'" Karl said. "She said, 'Why?' I said, 'Because I wouldn't let them go.'"

His parents loved to hear about Karl's home construction work. And they've still showed up for him at the site of their new home. 

"The day we got done digging the footings, I stopped and talked to the guy in the excavator," Karl said. "I looked up, and a bald eagle flew over. And I said, 'Dad was watching.'"

And he'll be back. 

"Time to change and just knowing that the bald eagle will fly over again."


Baihly Warfield

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