Short of equipping him with an ankle monitor, the family of 90-year-old George Pochiba is doubtful that his June disappearance, and his subsequent death, could have been prevented.
Described as a determined and tenacious handyman, Pochiba was slowly slipping into the shadows of his former self as dementia prevented him from doing much of what he loved.
Daughter Neva Neizmik said placing her father in a facility was out of the question. So was preventing him from talking his daily walks around his Scenery Hill home.
“I don’t have any guilt,” the Washington woman said. “I know my mom feels bad that she let him go, but nothing was going to stop him.”
On June 10, just as he would any other day, Pochiba left his home at 13 Crescent Road in search of the farm animals that he spent the first 30-some years of his life caring for. Neizmik said her father left around 7:30 p.m. Less than three hours later, an intensive search was under way.
“He would always come back. He’d be gone for an hour or so, realize there weren’t any horses or cows, and come back home,” Neizmik said. “But he didn’t come back that day.”
Neizmik said her father was “still very capable” despite the disease, but in recent months, his health had begun to decline.
Dozens of volunteers, state police and first responders searched a 6-mile radius around Pochiba’s home in the weeks that followed. Neizmik said areas in Eighty Four and Hendersonville, where Pochiba grew up and his family’s dairy farm was located, also were searched. A Facebook page to help coordinate the search was created, and a $3,000 reward was offered.
While Neizmik said she tried to remain positive, dread eventually crept into her thoughts.
“I said, ‘That’s it. This is over,’” she said.
In the end, Pochiba was found exactly one mile from his home. On July 9, farmer and property owner Nancy Brady was cutting and baling hay when she came upon a body in one of her fields along Brady Lane. A forensic investigation confirmed that it was Pochiba, who is believed to have died from natural causes. Neizmik suspects he suffered a heart attack or some other health emergency while walking.
“The whole time he was right here,” she said. “We walked right past him.”
While the ordeal has been devastating, Neizmik said she finds comfort in sharing her story and the reassurance that her father’s final days could have been much worse.
“He wasn’t in the hospital. He wasn’t on life-support,” she said. “He lived a normal life until he walked into that pasture.”
Pochiba was born August 24, 1923, and spent much of his early life working on his family’s dairy farm. He later operated his own trucking company, George Pochiba Trucking, until he was forced to retire in 1995 after he fell from his rig.
“He jumped off the truck like he would any other time and fell. He crushed his left hip and needed a hip replacement,” she said. “That’s how they identified him when they found him – the hip replacement.”
Not one to sit around, Neizmik said her father began to restore and sell antique farm tractors, spent hours doing yard work and tended to his garden.
When he turned 87, Neizmik began to notice subtle changes in him, like losing the keys to his mower.
“It was disastrous,” she said. “I went and had 10 keys made.”
Then came the excuses.
“He would find different reasons not to do the things he loved,” she said.
Eventually, Neizmik and her mother, Karen, realized that he simply didn’t remember how to do them.
“It was awful. It took away his zest for life,” she recalled.
Neizmik said her father was always very social. Neighbors, friends and strangers would stop and talk with him for hours as he tinkered with his latest tractor or worked in the yard. That eventually stopped.
“He forgot who they were. So people discontinued coming because he didn’t know them,” she said. “Slowly he started to decline, and it snowballed.”
Neizmik took him to a doctor, who prescribed medication to help slow the progression of the disease. To keep his spirits up, Neizmik played cards and games with her father. He was also allowed to continue his walks around his and his neighbor’s property.
“He was still very capable,” his daughter said. “He could take care of himself. He could eat. He just got confused.”
Neizmik made it clear that a facility wasn’t the right place for her father. Within the last six months, she said he had a few overnight stays in the hospital.
“They had a very difficult time with him,” she said. “He would pull out IVs. He was still so very strong. I feel he would have been mistreated in a facility.”
Stopping him from taking his walks also wasn’t an option.
“No one could have stopped him. Like I said, our only option would have been to get an ankle monitor, and I don’t think individuals can purchase them,” she said. “He was a very determined person. We have no regrets as to our care for him.”
While the disease took its toll at times, Neizmik said she remained very close with her father.
“We had a connection,” she said. “A wave. A smile or a laugh. That’s all we needed to know everything was OK.”
His wife, Karen, declined to be interviewed for the story. Neizmik said the last few weeks have been difficult for her mother.
“They were married 44 years,” she said. “I think she’s lonely.”
Both women are thankful for the support and help they have received from the community.
“They were wonderful. We feel completely loved,” Neizmik said.
She wants to remind everyone who shared in their sorrow that even if he was found the day he wandered off, the outcome likely would have been the same.
“Even if we would have found him right away, I think it might have been too late.”
While it’s never easy to say goodbye, Neizmik has found solace in the possibility that her father died on his terms. She fully believes he knew it was his time.
“He had a happy, full life,” she said. “From his perspective, he ended it peacefully.”