Gene Wilder’s widow, Karen Wilder, penned an emotional essay for ABC News about her late husband’s battle with Alzheimer’s disease. She praised ongoing efforts to fight the disease and also called for greater recognition of patient caregivers. Wilder died last August at 83.
In her essay, Karen Wilder noted that one in three seniors dies from Alzheimer’s or another form of dementia, but the disease also takes a toll elsewhere. She cited a Stanford Medicine study that showed 40 percent of Alzheimer’s caregivers die before their patient, “not from disease, but from the sheer physical, spiritual and emotional toll of caring for a loved one with Alzheimer’s … I am grateful that Gene never forgot who I was. But many caregivers of Alzheimer’s patients are less fortunate.”
Wilder, a speech pathologist, spoke about meeting Gene while he was researching his role as Dave, a deaf man in the comedy See No Evil, Hear No Evil. The two reunited and married after Wilder’s first wife, Gilda Radner, died of ovarian cancer. Wilder remembered her husband as “the kindest, most tender man,” and said the first signs of his Alzheimer’s were uncharacteristic moments when he lashed out at their grandson or failed to remember the name of Young Frankenstein (though he could still act out the part).
Wilder said her husband handled his diagnosis with grief and “astonishing grace.” She said that despite many difficult moments, he kept his sense of humor. While trying to pull himself up after a fall, she recalled how Gene “looked out as if he was addressing the audience at the Belasco Theater, a place he knew well, and said in his best Gene Wilder voice, ‘Just a minute folks. I’ll be right back.'”
Wilder said that her husband’s death left her with a sense of responsibility towards raising awareness for Alzheimer’s patients and caregivers. She praised the Gates Foundation for its recent $100 million donation aimed at eradicating the disease, and noted her partnership with the Alzheimer’s Association’s “Pure Imagination Project,” which is rooted in Wilder’s beloved performance in Willy Wonka.
“It is a strange, sad irony that so often, in the territory of a disease that robs an individual of memory, caregivers are often the forgotten,” Wilder said in closing. “Without them, those with Alzheimer’s could not get through the day, or die – as my husband did – with dignity, surrounded by love.”