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Late actor’s wife speaks out about Alzheimer’s disease

Karen and Gene 2.jpg
Karen and Gene Wilder
(Courtesy)

Karen Wilder will be honored at a gala to be held March 27 by the San Diego-Imperial chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association.

Karen Wilder loved her husband and wanted to take care of him, even as he lost the ability to communicate and perform simple tasks such as tying his shoes due to the progression of Alzheimer’s disease.

But Wilder, whose husband was Gene Wilder, the comic actor, writer and director, didn’t expect the enormous toll that caring for an Alzheimer’s patient would take on her mind, body and spirit.

Gene died in 2016 at age 83 from the disease, and since then, Karen has spoken out in an effort to foster awareness of the disease, help raise money for research, and let people know about the impact Alzheimer’s has not only on those who are stricken with it, but those who care for them. She will be honored at a gala to be held March 27 at the Del Mar Country Club by the San Diego-Imperial chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association.

The group will present Karen with the Hope Award “because of her dedication as a caregiver to her husband, Gene Wilder, and her promotion of concern and awareness of the disease in the community,” said Doug Friedman, director of communications for the local chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association.

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Karen Wilder speaking at an event.
(Courtesy)

Karen divides her time between Rancho Santa Fe and the couple’s home in Connecticut, as she and her husband did in the years before his death.

The two met in 1989, when Gene was working on a movie called “See No Evil, Hear No Evil,” in which he was to play a deaf man. Karen lived in New York City and worked as a speech pathologist. The actor sought her advice as he prepared for the role.

Later, the couple married, and, according to Karen, “We spent 28 wonderful years together.” They played tennis, traveled to France and Italy, read books to each other and painted with watercolors. Gene, who starred in such films as “The Producers,” “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory,” “Blazing Saddles,” and “Young Frankenstein,” in his later years wrote and acted in plays at a community theater near the couple’s home in Connecticut.

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“He was gentle, not always funny all the time, and he was very serious about his profession. He loved deeply and was always honest. It was like a fairy tale for me,” Karen said.

The disease first manifested itself when Gene had difficulty perceiving distances. For example, the couple’s grandson was playing with a stick, and Gene thought the boy was about to hit him, even though the stick was about 15 feet away. On another occasion, she said, her husband backed his car into a telephone pole in a grocery store parking lot, which upset him. He also had trouble remembering names and expressing his thoughts.

Gene was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease after a series of tests that took place over several months, Karen said. Alzheimer’s is a progressive, neurological disorder that causes memory loss and a decline in thinking and behavioral skills. There is no cure, although medications can in some cases slow the progress of the disease.

As the diseased progressed, Karen said, her husband had more difficulty with basic tasks and even walking.

“Every day I’d see something he couldn’t do or comprehend,” she said, which made her feel sick, but she tried to put on a “happy face” for her husband. Eventually, she said, she would have to support his body when he walked, and she struggled to lift him up when he fell. Caring for her husband was incredibly hard on her own body, Karen said.

From the time his first symptoms emerged until his death, about six years elapsed, Karen said.

After her husband’s death, she agreed to allow the national Alzheimer’s Association to use Gene’s likeness, in character as Willy Wonka, in a video campaign to raise awareness of the disease. In the video, the actor sings a song, “Pure Imagination,” as different objects in the scene disappear.

“That’s how Alzheimer’s happens. It takes people away from you,” she said.

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Karen said her husband, through his work, was loved by people of all ages from around the world. She said she is willing to lend Gene’s name and likeness to bring attention to Alzheimer’s patients and caregivers, and “fight against a despicable, horrible disease for which there is no hope.”

One of the first steps she took following her husband’s diagnosis was to contact the local chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association.

The association offers classes and workshops, support groups and referrals for services, said Friedman. “People call all the time with loads of questions, we are able to point them in the right direction for care and support.”

The association also supports research, care for patients and caregivers and promotion of brain health, Friedman said. This year’s gala is a first for the organization, although it holds other fundraisers throughout the year. Those affected by Alzheimer’s who need assistance or information can call the association’s national hotline, 24 hours a day and seven days a week, at 800-272-3900.

Karen said she recently attended an Alzheimer’s conference in Los Angeles, where she learned about new drugs and advances in research.

“I left with hope,” she said. “They’re getting closer all the time.”

This year’s Alzheimer’s Association San Diego/Imperial Chapter gala theme on March 27 will be “Pure Imagination.” The gala will feature live and silent auctions, live music by the popular band Atomic Groove, and more. The event emcee will be NBC 7 San Diego anchor Bridget Naso. All money raised at this year’s event will fund educational programs, support groups and research in San Diego and Imperial Counties. For information about the Imagination Ball, go to www.alz.org/sandiego.


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