The widow of actor Gene Wilder, who died in August 2016 at the age of 83 after battling Alzheimer’s for several years, is opening up about the last years of her husband’s life.
Gene and Karen Wilder got married in 1991 following the 1989 death of Gene’s previous wife, Gilda Radner. The couple remained happily married until Gene’s death.
Karen detailed how her husband — known for his roles in films like “Young Frankenstein,” “Blazing Saddles” and “Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory” — gradually changed as Alzheimer’s ravaged his body.
“The first signs of trouble were small. 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,” she wrote this week in an essay for ABC News.
“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.”
When Gene eventually got tested, the diagnosis that came back was grim.
“Unlike other diagnoses, even some cancers, this one offers not even a shred of hope for survival,” Karen wrote. “The synapses of his brain were getting tangled and the result would be a steady and terrible progression of losses — memory of course, but also motor control, to the point where eventually his body would simply forget how to swallow or breathe.”
Noting that her husband received the news with “astonishing grace,” she explained that he fought the disease for six years. She specifically referenced two instances to show how the affliction affected him over time.
Once, Gene struggled with the drawstring ties on his pants. Another time, Karen had to take his watch away after she noticed that his wrist was bleeding from a failed effort to remove it.
Even in the midst of the tragic situation, Karen said, the couple was still able to “have some good times and to laugh.” And despite the effects Alzheimer’s was having on his body, Gene managed to maintain his sense of humor.
“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,'” Karen wrote.
She went on to explain that her husband was not the only victim of the disease — she suffered too.
In fact, citing a 2002 Stanford University study, she pointed out that 40 percent of caregivers to Alzheimer’s patients die before the patient due to the “physical, spiritual and emotional toll.”
Karen then revealed her husband’s heartbreaking last words, which he uttered on his last night on earth, after days of not speaking.
“(H)e looked me straight in the eye and said, three times over, ‘I trust you,'” she recalled.
Karen concluded her piece by praising the work of the Gates Foundation, which announced that it was setting aside $100 million to Alzheimer’s research. But she also emphasized that it’s important not to forget those who provide care for their loved ones.
“I am grateful that Gene never forgot who I was. But many caregivers of Alzheimer’s patients are less fortunate,” she wrote.
“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,” Karen added. “Without them, those with Alzheimer’s could not get through the day, or die — as my husband did — with dignity, surrounded by love.”
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