The 71-year-old man wound up in Maine, but is back home in North Bergen with his wife thanks to help from the North Bergen police and local service organizations.
According to Aimee Focaraccio, coordinator of local assistance program NB CARES, the North Bergen police contacted her because of her work reaching out to people in need.
The events unfolded on Friday, Feb. 9, when the resident of a local senior building took his car to a mechanic. After the visit, the man’s engine light wouldn’t turn off. The mechanics told him to drive the car for 30 miles to see if it would turn off.
Instead of just driving locally, the man drove all the way to Maine that evening, according to NB’s Focaraccio, who coordinated the rescue effort.
“What happened was, early Friday morning, one of the women from the senior building, she reported her husband and her car missing,” Focaraccio said. “They had been trying to reach him, calling him all day, and he wasn't answering his phone.”
The department contacted the man's phone provider and “pinged” his phone, so it would send out a GPS signal. That's when they discovered he had ended up north, Focaraccio said.
A Silver Alert for the man was also issued. That alert focuses mainly on seniors with Alzheimer's, dementia, and other mental disabilities. North Bergen police remained in contact with Maine law enforcement through the ordeal.
“The state troopers found him, and he was extremely disoriented,” Focaraccio said. The troopers contacted NBPD, and brought the man to a hospital.
She said, “He drove all the way to Maine, but they couldn't imagine how he drove so far and he was eight hours away. It was just crazy.”
Focaraccio kept Mayor Nicholas Sacco informed of the situation.
“He was like, 'See how we're able to help him, and figure out what we're able to do.' It's a difficult one, because our resources are local. Also, you have a patient who has dementia. Someone they don't know may not be the right person to help them get back. It may not go so well.”
Complicating matters was that the couple only spoke Spanish, according to Focaraccio.
Focaraccio reached out to the Act Now Foundation for Alzheimer's Awareness, based in Jersey City. The Nicholas J. Sacco Foundation and CarePoint Health also got involved in the effort, pooling their resources.
“We flew the wife and their homemaker to Maine,” Focaraccio said. “They checked him out of the hospital, we got them a hotel, they stayed overnight in the hotels, we gave them money for food, gas, and tolls. Then they drove home altogether.”
NB CARES is funded by the town budget.
The man was in the hospital from that Friday night through Sunday night, Focaraccio said. “We were under the impression they were going to hold him three more days, and he was going to be released on Wednesday,” Focaraccio said.
But things changed, perhaps a strong indictment of America's current health care system.
“Monday morning, we got a call from the hospital, and they told us he had to be out by midnight, or they were going to charge him $1,600 a night,” Focaraccio said. “They had already discharged him, so we had to scramble to get the wife up there that night.”
The couple stayed in a hotel, and drove back the following day.
“It was just crazy.” – Aimee Focaraccio
Officials held a welcoming party for the man at his senior building on Thursday, complete with cake and a meet-and-greet.
“The mayor was literally so concerned, because they don't have any family around here,” Focaraccio said. “They are older, they only have family in Cuba, and they're in the senior building, so fixed income, no assets. It was really difficult.”
Gonzalez was quiet and reserved at the party. “He was kind of still in a shock,” Focaraccio said. “The wife was just very appreciative. She was in tears. She was very grateful to the mayor and the people that worked on it so hard.”
To help prevent any more sudden adventures, the Act Now Foundation will be working with the man to make sure he's getting the help he needs, and giving his wife the resources to deal with his condition in the future.
The NPBD called Focaraccio specifically because “they call me with all the crazy situations,” she said. “You know, the NB CARES program, we deal with so many different kinds of emergencies. And we have so many resources and such a big network, that I guess I was their best hope at that point.”
NB CARES holds annual charity events for residents, including Thanksgiving and Christmas giveaways.
“Thanks to Aimee Focaraccio and NB CARES. for handling the difficult and complicated process of arranging for his care and return to North Bergen,” Sacco said in a statement. “This could not have been accomplished without the cooperation of ACT NOW and CarePoint Health, who contributed financial and logistical support to the effort.”
No word yet on if Tinseltown execs are calling the man for the rights to his story.
Hannington Dia can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org