Karen Wilder, the widow of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory star Gene Wilder, has penned a moving essay about her late husband, his battle with Alzheimer’s, and the toll the disease can take on spouses and caregivers.
“I never pictured myself marrying a movie star,” she wrote in the essay, which was published Tuesday by ABC News. “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.”
Karen Wilder met her future husband in 1989, when he was preparing to shoot See No Evil, Hear No Evil. She was an experienced speech pathologist, and his character in the film was deaf. “As he always did when he took on a role, Gene wanted to understand his character,” she wrote. “He showed up at my office one day in search of my professional advice.
“We formed a powerful bond,” she continued. “At the time, Gene was married to Gilda Radner, who was in the final stages of ovarian cancer. After Gilda’s death, Gene sought me out again. We married a year later and, for more than twenty years, we were one of the happiest couples I knew.”
Over time, however, her husband’s health deteriorated. “I watched his disintegration each moment of each day for six years,” she wrote. “We still managed to have some good times and to laugh, even at the ravages of the disease that was killing him.” (He died in August 2016.)
She added that “there’s another particularly cruel aspect to the disease of Alzheimer’s, because in addition to destroying — piece by piece — the one who’s stricken with it, it ravages the life of the person caring for its victims. In our case, I was that person.”
According to a Stanford Medicine study, 40 percent of Alzheimer’s caregivers die before the patient, from the physical, spiritual, and emotional toll.
“Neither my love, nor science, could save my husband’s life,” Karen Wilder wrote. “But it’s my most profound hope that through research and awareness, others may be spared the experience that killed Gene — and could have killed me, too.”
To raise awareness about Alzheimer’s, she has allowed her husband’s portrayal of Willy Wonka to be used in a new video campaign called the Pure Imagination Project.
Read Karen Wilder’s full essay at ABC News, and watch a video from the Pure Imagination Project above.