Genentech employee encourages coworkers to participate in Walk

Milet Koo, the Sr. Media Delivery Lead at Genentech, is not only Genentech’s Team Captain but also the co-chair of both the 2020 and 2021 San Francisco Walk to End Alzheimer’s. Milet and her mother cared for Milet’s father, Manuel, who had younger-onset dementia for eight years. They helped Manuel as best they could but found they were lacking in information and resources. Now, with the support of her employer, Milet shares her story to let other caregivers know about available resources and encourage them to participate in Walk to End Alzheimer’s®.

Milet (right) and a few members of Team Genentech

A loving father
Manuel Gonzales loved nature and animals. He and his brother owned a landscape consulting business in Palm Springs. Milet Koo, Manuel’s only child, said “If there is anything I inherited from my father, it’s his love of nature…that and we’ve always had dogs and pets.”

Manuel was thrilled when Milet was accepted into pharmacy school, even though it meant that she would be moving to the Philippines. Because of the distance, Milet only returned home during the summers. This meant she didn’t see the signs of her father’s disease.

Milet assumed his odd behavior was due to alcohol and not memory issues. “He’d lose his truck, his keys, or forget where he was headed,” said Milet. “I would think, maybe he had a little to drink and that was why he was acting odd.”

Cultural stigma
According to the 2021 Alzheimer’s Disease Facts and Figures report, older Hispanics are about one and one-half times more likely to have Alzheimer’s or other dementias than older Whites. However, they are twice as likely as Whites to say they would not see a doctor if experiencing memory problems.

Fifty-seven percent of Hispanic Americans surveyed believe that significant loss of memory or cognitive abilities is a “normal part of aging.” This is more than any other racial or ethnic group. Twenty percent of Hispanic Americans say that they would feel insulted if a doctor suggested a cognitive assessment.

Some of these statistics are the result of stigmas in the Hispanic community. Milet, whose father is Mexican, wonders if this same stigma played a role in her father’s delayed diagnosis.

“We [Milet and her mother] had to convince him to seek diagnosis,” said Milet. “He didn’t want to admit he had a problem. Maybe from a cultural perspective, he saw it as a weakness.”

However, even after Manuel agreed to see a doctor, no one was available to drive him to his appointments. Milet was a living in the Philippines and her mother was working full time.

“By the time we got him to see a specialist, the disease had really progressed,” said Milet. Manuel was diagnosed with younger-onset dementia.

Dementia is considered to be younger-onset if it affects a person under 65. Younger-onset can also be referred to as early onset dementia. People with younger-onset dementia can be in the early, middle or late stage of the disease.

“The doctor told us that unless we were going to be there with him all day or hire a full-time caregiver,  something we couldn’t afford, he would need to be in memory care because he could walk out of the building and not know his way back.”

Caring for dad
“When I was in my second year of pharmacy school, I came home to see my parents,” said Milet. “My mom said, ‘I can’t take care of your dad anymore.’ She kept coming home from work and finding that the doors were open, appliances and lights were left on.”

At the time, Milet’s mother needed to continue to work to support the household and she wasn’t old enough to retire. Milet’s mother knew she needed help and asked Milet what her plans were for the future. Was Milet planning to stay in the Philippines to finish college or could she finish college in the U.S. to help care for Manuel?

Milet made the decision to finish college closer to home and became a caregiver for her father. “Everything happened pretty rapidly after that,” said Milet. “I enrolled in the local community college. Then we got a game plan together for my dad and moved him into a care setting.”

Manuel lived there until he died in 2014.

Milet with Team Genentech at Walk to End Alzhiemer's
Milet (in the red hat) with team members and volunteers

Finding the Alzheimer’s Association®
About a year later, Milet was working for Genentech, a biotechnology company that helps discover and develop medicine for people with serious and life-threatening diseases. She saw a booth at work for the Alzheimer’s Association and talked to the staff. Milet said, “From that moment I wanted to get involved.”

Milet, her husband, and their dogs signed up with Team Genentech for the San Francisco Walk to End Alzheimer’s and have been walking ever since.

Becoming the Team Captain
In 2019 the captain of Genentech’s Walk team was leaving the organization. She wanted to make sure that the person who replaced her was passionate about the cause. It quickly became clear that Milet was the obvious choice to take on the Team Captain role.

“I love meeting everyone who has a passion for the disease, either a personal connection or a professional one,” said Milet. Some of the people on my team are working on the disease in the lab. When people ask why I’m involved, I share my story about my father, and they understand.”

Support from Genentech
Genentech encourages their employees to make donations towards the organizations that mean the most to them, with a dollar-for-dollar match. “As of last year, our company matches donations dollar-for-dollar up to $2,000 per employee,” said Milet. “It used to be $1,000 but Genentech cares about the nonprofit work that may be getting ignored because of the pandemic.”

Team Genentech at the San Francisco Walk to End Alzheimer's
Team Genentech

Recruiting team members
Less than a year after Milet took over as Team Captain, the COVID pandemic began. “That was super interesting,” said Milet. “Here I am as Team Captain and now I have to figure out how I’m going to lead a team that doesn’t see each other.”

Milet was able to come up with some great ways to bring her team together without actually being together. She:

  • Started a formal chat room
  • Created a Google Hangout
  • Utilized Zoom meetings
  • Created posts on the company’s internal website

Becoming co-chair
At the same time Milet became the Team Captain, she also became co-chair of the San Francisco Walk. “I had been a participant for four years at the time,” said Milet. “One year, my husband and I said, ‘We want to be more involved.’ There were some events at Genentech that brought everyone together, but it wasn’t enough. I reached out to the Association to see what I could do, and I’ve been on the committee ever since.”

Raising awareness
When Milet’s father was first diagnosed, she had hoped her father’s doctors would hold her hand as she navigated through her father’s disease. She soon learned they would not. After having gone through this disease unsupported and uneducated she now knows how important it is for families to have access to resources like those provided by the Alzheimer’s Association.

Team Genentech at the San Francisco Walk to End Alzheimer's
Team Genentech

“There are people like me who aren’t aware of resources and education on the symptoms and signs,” said Milet. “I felt debilitated, like I couldn’t do anything. People don’t realize the impact it has on us until we have a personal connection.”

Walk to End Alzheimer’s helps bring awareness to the disease that many people need. “I think we need broader education about the disease,” said Milet. “I’d hate for someone to go through what I went through.”

Volunteer and donate
“A lot of people think ‘Oh the Association is big enough, it has a huge national presence,” said Milet. “Well…how did they get that big without fundraising and support? No nonprofit can get enough volunteer support or funds. These Walks rely on volunteers and any fundraising we do in local communities.

“For me if you have the means and you feel like it’s going to make a difference and you can eventually make an impact, small or large, do it.”

It’s not too late to support Walk to End Alzheimer’s in your area, start a team or raise funds at Fundraising continues until December 31, 2021.

If your company is interested in supporting your local Walk visit and contact your local Walk Manager. Or sign up for the Bay Area corporate challenge here.

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