Solano County man honors late wife by supporting Alzheimer’s Association
Ken Wright met his wife, Sue, shortly after the Vietnam War while serving in the Air Force. After Sue was diagnosed with mild cognitive impairment, Ken retired early to become her full-time caregiver until she died. Seven years later, Ken was reconnected with Walk to End Alzheimer’s in Solano County and has been volunteering ever since. Ken shares how he and his team continue to be the top fundraisers and why supporting Walk is so important.
Some enchanted evening
Ken Wright graduated college at the height of the Vietnam War. Knowing he would have to be a part of the war effort in some way, he joined the Air Force and flew transport planes. During his time in the Air Force, Ken was stationed at several bases overseas.
One Thanksgiving he found himself with a layover at Clark Air Base in the Philippines. Having been stationed there a year before, he still had some friends in the area and decided to have dinner with them. There, he met Sue, the woman who would become his wife.
“There was a teacher for the [Department of Defense] (DOD) school system, her name was Sue. It was one of those things where we just clicked,” said Ken, humming the tune to “Some Enchanted Evening” from the musical South Pacific. “I spent the rest of my time trying to get trips to Clark to see her. Almost a year later, I asked her to marry me. We were together for 31 years.”
Sue, who grew up on Air Force bases, attended three high schools before graduating. When she and Ken had their only child, a daughter, she lived vicariously through her daughter’s high school experiences. A substitute teacher for many years, students who ran into her outside of school were always pleased to see her and commented on how nice she was.
However, as Sue got older, she began to recognize in herself how forgetful she was becoming. She started taking ginkgo biloba to help with her memory but found it wasn’t working. In 2001, shortly after the 9/11 attacks where terrorists hijacked airplanes and crashed them into buildings, Sue and Ken went on a trip to visit their son-in-law’s parents in Germany. Sue left her bag on the ground at the airport, a significant potential security threat at the time. Luckily Ken was able to race back through the airport to grab it before anyone could assume the worst.
Sue and Ken went to a neurologist in Fairfield who assured them there was nothing to worry about. However, the couple knew something was wrong and went to their regular doctor who they had seen for many years. Luckily this doctor was able to diagnose Sue with mild cognitive impairment (MCI).
Mild cognitive impairment
MCI is an early stage of memory loss or other cognitive ability loss (such as language or visual/spatial perception) in individuals who maintain the ability to independently perform most activities of daily living.
The 2022 edition of Alzheimer’s Association® Alzheimer’s Disease Facts and Figures featured a special report, More Than Normal Aging: Understanding Mild Cognitive Impairment, that examined the challenges physicians and the American public face in understanding and diagnosing MCI.
According to the report, approximately 12% to 18% of people age 60 or older are living with MCI. An estimated 10% to 15% of individuals living with MCI develop dementia each year and about one-third of people living with MCI due to Alzheimer’s disease develop dementia within five years.
During their marriage, Ken had retired from the Air Force and started a new career in information technology (IT). At the time, it was a new field, but Ken was excited for this new opportunity and found he excelled at it. Ken said, “At that moment, I knew what I wanted to be when I grew up.”
As time went on, the companies Ken worked for were acquired by larger and larger companies, with his last company being Hewlett Packard (HP). As luck would have it, Ken was able to qualify for early retirement just as Sue needed full time care.
Sue sadly passed in 2008.
Joining the Committee
While Ken is unsure of when he first learned about the Alzheimer’s Association, he knows that he participated in what was then known as the Memory Walk at the Jelly Belly Factory in Fairfield. However, he never used the resources that were available. “I did not avail myself to the Association as much as I should have,” said Ken. “We went on the journey alone. I didn’t use the Association resources and I wish I had.”
Ken eventually moved into Paradise Valley Estates, a retirement community in Fairfield. There he found they had a team for Walk to End Alzheimer’s in Solano County. The Alzheimer’s Association Walk to End Alzheimer’s® is the world’s largest fundraiser for Alzheimer’s care, support and research. This inspiring event calls on participants of all ages and abilities to join the fight against the disease.
Ken joined the team, and eventually became a volunteer for the Walk itself. “Sue had been gone a long time,” said Ken. “I was looking for something to fight this terrible [disease] instead of just sitting back and taking it. I found it very rewarding to do something positive to try and fight this thing. I joined the Committee in 2015 and I’ve been doing it ever since.”
Because Ken lives in a retirement community, he finds it very easy to ask for people to help support the Walk team. “I live in a community that is chock-full of people at risk,” said Ken. “The retirement community is 65 plus and I’m a good salesman. There is a club here called the Termites, they’re woodworkers. They made me a purple box to collect donations. At the town halls [here], I do a pitch asking for help.”
Ken also was able to get his retirement community to become a sponsor for the local walk, sponsoring at a different level every year. “Management is very supportive,” said Ken. “The staff put on a carwash and raised $1,820.”
Knowing that many of the residents in his community have to make a minimum required distribution on their retirement accounts, Ken encourages them to use this money towards a tax-free donation. “You have to withdraw some amount,” said Ken. “One neighbor didn’t need the money, so she just donated her minimum required distribution to the Walk. You don’t pay taxes on it either. A lot of the money [fundraised] is people doing that.”
As of the posting of this blog, Ken’s team, PVE Pacers is the top team in Solano County having raised over $32,000. Ken himself is in the top five fundraisers, having raised more than $13,000 on his own.
Finding a cure
Ken loves the feeling of togetherness at Walk. He knows that the Alzheimer’s journey can be a lonely and isolating one. Ken says, “[At Walk] there’s energy and you’re all together doing something important.”
The funds raised from Walk to End Alzheimer’s fuel the mission of the Association and help advance critical care, support and research. “Walk is important because the things we’re doing are having a result,” said Ken. “For the first time we have FDA approved treatments for the underlying cause. We have to keep the fight going until the day comes that I can shake the hand of someone who was cured of Alzheimer’s.”
Ken reminds caregivers to use the Association resources and to learn everything you can about the disease. “If you’re lost on what to do, call the 24/7 Helpline (800.272.3900),” said Ken. “There is a huge amount of information on alz.org. Your life has started changing right now. It’s going to change all the time, don’t be mad don’t argue just support them and love them and stick with them.”
Ken Wright met his wife, Sue, shortly after the Vietnam War while serving in the Air Force. After Sue was diagnosed with mild cognitive impairment, Ken retired early from his second career to become her full-time caregiver until she died. Seven years later, Ken was reconnected with Walk to End Alzheimer’s in Solano County and has been volunteering ever since. Ken shares how he and his team continue to be the top fundraisers and why supporting Walk is so important.