Widow of Gene Wilder pens heartbreaking essay about his Alzheimer's battle

Ben Arnold
Contributor

Karen Wilder, the widow of screen icon Gene Wilder, has penned an emotional essay about dealing with her late husband’s battle with Alzheimer’s.

Wilder died in 2016 at the age of 83, but had kept the news of his diagnosis from the public.

In the piece for ABC News, she writes: “I never pictured myself marrying a movie star. I also never saw myself spending years of my life taking care of one.

“But I’ve done both. Love was the reason for the first. Alzheimer’s disease, the second.”

Wilder writes about the first worrisome signs of the disease, and then how it slowly began to take everything from the Blazing Saddles actor.

“The first signs of trouble were small,” she continues. “Always the kindest, most tender man (if a fly landed on him, he waited for the fly to leave), suddenly I saw Gene lashing out at our grandson.

“His perception of objects and their distance from him became so faulty that on a bike ride together, he thought we were going to crash into some trees many feet away from us.

“Once, at a party with friends, when the subject of Young Frankenstein came up, he couldn’t think of the name of the movie and had to act it out instead.

Of his diagnosis, she writes: “My husband took the news with grief, of course, but also astonishing grace. I watched his disintegration each moment of each day for six years. One day, I saw him struggle with the ties on his drawstring pants. That night, I took the drawstrings out. Then his wrist was bleeding from the failed effort of trying to take off his watch. I put his watch away.

“One day, when he fell on the patio and couldn’t get up, I maneuvered him over to the edge of our pool and floated him to the other side, where there were steps and a railing to assist him. Another time, after struggling for twenty minutes trying to pull himself up, he 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’.

“Gene died fifteen months ago. I was in the bed next to him when he took his last breaths. By that point, it had been days since he’d spoken. But on that last night, he looked me straight in the eye and said, three times over, ‘I trust you.’”

She also paid tribute to those who care for sufferers of Alzheimer’s.

“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,” she writes.

“Without them, those with Alzheimer’s could not get through the day, or die — as my husband did — with dignity, surrounded by love.”

Wilder’s iconic performance of the song Pure Imagination from Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory is currently being used in a campaign to raise money and awareness for the Alzheimer’s Association.

You can read the full essay here.

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