In our opinion: A tragic ending brings sorrow for community, lessons for all

Published: Friday, Nov. 2 2012 12:00 a.m. MDT

The search for 80-year-old Fritz Helland came to a tragic end this week as hikers discovered his body in Neffs Canyon. He apparently had fallen down steep terrain along with his pet dog, whose body also was found.

We join in the sorrow of a community whose hearts go out to his family as they deal with this loss, just as those hearts united in efforts to find Helland when he was discovered to be missing. Last weekend, more than 1,800 volunteers joined in the search for him, covering 17 square miles in an impressive show of support and concern that has become emblematic of the way people along the Wasatch Front rally in times of need. The decision to call off that search left all involved with an empty feeling that has now been filled with a grim certainty.

The sense of community that prompted volunteers to help is one comforting lesson to come from this ordeal. Helland's family will not mourn alone.

Another lesson is one perhaps less apparent. It concerns the aging of the population in the United States, and the issues that will accompany this trend.

From what was made public, it would be wrong to characterize Helland as suffering from Alzheimer's. He lived alone and appeared to be functioning well, and he had regular contact with helpful children. But they reported that his short-term memory wasn't what it used to be. That could be described as a common symptom of aging, which raises concerns among family members as the condition slowly progresses.

For a growing number of families in Utah and elsewhere, dealing with these issues involves concern, uncertainty and worry. Often the elderly person tries to hold onto independence while children and other loved ones wrestle with how to remove driving privileges or whether to insist on placing the person in an assisted living situation.

Last year, a task force charged with identifying the issues surrounding aging and its related problems painted a sobering picture. Utah is projected to have the highest growth rate of Alzheimer's in the nation — a projected 127 percent increase by 2025. That means a commensurate increase in other age-related problems not necessarily associated with that disease.

While researchers hunt for medical cures or treatments, early diagnosis remains a key. The need for quality care that is affordable and readily available is vital, as are resources to help relatives who often feel helpless in dealing with problems associated with age.

None of this may have been applicable to Helland. But his disappearance demonstrates how age-related concerns fall within a wide spectrum not easily categorized. There are no easy answers.

Thankfully, communities in Utah already come with a ready supply of genuinely concerned neighbors anxious to help. That is a huge and priceless factor. Official policymakers need to make sure a broader support network is in place, as well, to help people deal with these troubling but inevitable issues.

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