Stroll of strength: Associate walking to keep dad’s spirit strong

Stroll of strength: Associate walking to keep dad’s spirit strong

Walk to end Alzheimer's parade participants pose for photo

To Michele Martinez, every note, every chord and every melody sounded perfect.

Every time.

It’s been nearly 12 years since Martinez lost her dad to Alzheimer’s disease, a devastating disorder that robbed him of his ability to think, speak and walk. But, while her family ultimately endured a heavy dose of heartbreak in the end, not one day goes by where she doesn’t relive those special moments throughout his battle when he would turn the nursing home’s dining hall into his very own concert hall. His solo performances were so uplifting that the medical staff nicknamed him the “Piano Man.”

“Before he was diagnosed, he had never played the piano before in his life,” said Martinez, a sales and service support coordinator at Empower. “He would pull up his wheelchair and just start pounding away at the keys, with a huge smile on his face. That was his way of communicating with everyone and making us happy.

“To him, it was music.”

Inspired by her dad, who passed away at the age of 72, Martinez continues to put his upbeat spirit on center stage.

For the 16th straight summer, Martinez will once again captain the “Piano Man Fans” team at the annual Walk to End Alzheimer’s parade. The upcoming march, which is scheduled for Sept. 19 for Denver-area residents, will be a virtual experience due to ongoing health concerns related to the coronavirus outbreak.

The “Piano Man Fans” squad, which includes Martinez and a crew of close-knit friends and family members, plans to gather at a neighborhood park on Saturday morning and complete three full loops around the space to meet the informal 5K milestone. And, in sticking with a longstanding tradition, the passionate group still intends on celebrating together over a hot breakfast following the festivities.

“This will be a more intimate setting for us,” Martinez said. “We may not have the large crowd for extra support, but we’ve built a very strong network. I can’t describe what it means to be a part of this fight.”

Of course, when it comes to shedding light on the sixth-leading cause of death in the U.S., it’s a united front.1

To help defeat the nationwide epidemic, which currently impacts millions of Americans, Empower is encouraging its employees to hit their stride in their local community and  take action on social media. From Sept. 1 to Sept. 19, the company and the Denver Broncos are both donating $1 to the Alzheimer’s Association (up to $15,000 each) when associates create their own post or share any message from Empower or the NFL organization using the hashtags #EmpowerACTs and #Walk2EndALZ.

“After a lot of time inside over the past six months, we know our associates are excited to get  outside — and get involved,” said Angie Ruddell, engagement and corporate social responsibility manager at Empower. “This is a fun opportunity to stay active while making a positive difference where we live.”

In Martinez’s case, her emotions will be running higher than usual this weekend after her mom died of COVID-19 complications in March. She was one of three individuals who succumbed to the infection at her assisted care facility in Colorado as the virus spread rapidly on the main level of the complex.

Now, with her “biggest advocate for raising awareness” for Alzheimer’s no longer here to root her on, Martinez has even more motivation to keep putting her best foot forward on her mission to find a cure. 

“I know my mom would be proud I’m still doing this; she told me to never stop,” said Martinez, who has been an avid volunteer with the Alzheimer’s Association since 2005. “It’s what she would have wanted.”

After all, Martinez has witnessed just how quickly the debilitating ailment can shatter someone’s mental state.

Early warning signs first appeared at her daughter’s wedding reception in 2004, when Martinez’s dad showed no interest in dancing, interacting or conversing with any guests. In Martinez’s mind, “he was acting different.” From there, her suspicions that his behavior seemed off only intensified when she learned her dad had attempted to insert a screwdriver into an outdoor electrical outlet in the rain. 

Other red flags that emerged over time included mild confusion, difficulty talking and low energy.

“People with dementia often hide the fact something isn’t right,” Martinez said. “I thought he had a brain tumor.”

A visit to the hospital, however, revealed that Martinez’s dad had developed an accelerated case of Alzheimer’s that was increasingly getting worse due to his existing struggle with diabetes. On top of that grave evaluation, the doctor also deemed he was unfit to return to his normal routine, lifestyle and environment. Following that appointment, “he never came back home to my mom,” Martinez said.

On Sept. 21, 2008, the day following the Walk to End Alzheimer’s, Martinez’s dad reached his own finish line.

"It ripped apart who he was as a person,” Martinez said. “It stripped him of his honor, dignity and pride.”

But it doesn’t stand a chance at weakening Martinez’s relentless resolve as she fulfills a promise dear to her heart.

“In his final hours, I whispered in my dad’s ear and let him know, ‘As long as I can do it, I will always be his champion for a cure,’” Martinez said. “He taught me how important it is to bring hope to this purpose.

“That’s my reward.”

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