BELOIT — Nine years after being diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s disease, 65-year-old “bike elf” Brian Reece is still making miracles happen.
In addition to rebuilding and giving away bicycles to those in need with his wife, Anne, Brian’s health and memory have stayed steady since his initial diagnosis.
Brian and Anne Reece launched the Bike Elves nine years ago as a way to give back and to keep Brian’s mind and body active as he battled early onset Alzheimer’s disease. The couple would accept old bicycles and parts to rebuild for children and adults as well as tricycles and other modified bicycles for those with disabilities or special needs.
To date, the Bike Elves have given away 5,380 bicycles, with 380 of them donated since Easter alone. Due to a bicycle shortage in stores because of COVID-19, the Bike Elves have been busier than ever. Currently, they are helping Malissa Cronin raise funds for the Alzheimer’s Association’s Walk to End Alzheimer’s in Rock County by donating garden bicycles. The modified and painted bicycles have planter boxes built-in and are designed to be a summer yard attraction. The tickets are being sold for $5 each, or three for $10 or eight for $20. They can be purchased from the Reeces, Cronin, Walnut Creek Apparel & Gifts, 408 E. Grand Ave., and Pig Iron Pub and Grub, 613 St. Paul Ave.
The 2020 Walk to End Alzheimer’s in Beloit will be held virtually on Oct. 3. Cronin’s fundraiser is in honor of her mother, Karen Halderson, who passed away about a year ago after a 3-year battle with Alzheimer’s disease.
The Bike Elves have come a long way since Brian’s original diagnosis at University of Wisconsin Madison hospitals in 2011.
At the time he was having short-term memory loss and trouble finding words. The couple sprung to action getting Brian on the medication Exelon, finding a support group and working on bicycles. The medication seemed to halt his disease progression. Over the years the couple accumulated more bicycles and parts as they ramped up distribution. They purchased a house next door to be a workshop and moved from delivering in a pickup truck to driving a cargo van.
“I’ve had 20 full size bikes in there,” Brian said.
Nine years later Brian’s condition is stable. One doctor has questioned if his symptoms were instead another form of dementia or perhaps stem from a traumatic brain injury Brian suffered in the Marines earlier in his life. Whatever memory challenge it is, they are just glad he is doing so well.
“Without the decline the medical profession is not certain it is Alzheimer’s disease. To us it doesn’t matter as the things Brian experiences on a daily basis are what a person with Alheimer’s Disease experiences, therefore we will continue to speak out about Alzheimer’s disease and support groups that support those who are affected by Alzheimer’s disease and their families,” Anne Reece said.
Some of the other people in their support group with early onset Alzheimer’s are also holding somewhat steady, thanks in part to their commitment to stay active and busy.
Through their connection with others suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, the Reeces have made many new connections including that with Malissa Cronin. Cronin said her mother’s disease progression was much faster and included many heart-wrenching moments such as taking away her transportation and getting her into assisted living. Cronin walked in the Walk to End Alzheimer’s last year, joined the committee and had been fundraising through bingo events at Pig Iron Pub and Grub. When COVID-19 hit, Anne Reece offered to make her a tie blanket to raffle off and then the garden bicycles.
The Reeces and Cronin are working together to drum up funds and awareness of Alzheimer’s disease. With more funding and awareness, perhaps there will one day be a cure. They also said if there is more acceptance and recognition of the condition, people may notice the symptoms sooner and get treatment earlier which can improve outcomes.
“I’m going to keep helping as long as I can,” Brian Reece said.
Cronin’s next bingo fundraiser will be at Pig Iron Pub and Grub on Sept. 27 at 1 p.m.