Gene Wilder, whose real name was Jerome Silberman, was one of the most iconic actors to grace the silver screen. Best known for his award-winning roles in Willy Wonka and The Chocolate Factory, Young Frankenstein, Stir Crazy and The Producers, Wilder left the acting world behind in 2003 to pursue his other passion: writing.
Despite all the success he's achieved, life wasn't a smooth ride for Wilder. After going through two failed marriages, he wed Saturday Night Live actress Gilda Radner in 1981. The couple were married for five years before Radner passed away from ovarian cancer.
Wilder himself faced some health struggles years later when he was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma. He underwent a stem cell transplant and chemotherapy to treat the disease, and remained in remission until his death from complications of Alzheimer's disease in 2016.
Now, nearly two years since the actor passed away, his widow, Karen, is opening up about her late husbands battle with the degenerative brain disease.
Karen wrote a powerful and emotional essay recounting both good and bad moments they shared as a couple, and the toll Alzheimer's often takes on caregivers, including spouses.
When Karen met Wilder back in 1989, she would've never predicted that she would one day lose the love of her life to Alzheimer's. She was a speech pathologist who provided Wilder with professional advice for the movie See No Evil, Hear No Evil, in which he played a deaf character.
"We formed a powerful bond,” she wrote in the essay published by ABC News. "We married a year later and, for more than twenty years, we were one of the happiest couples I knew."
"I never pictured myself marrying a movie star," she continued. "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."
Unfortunately, Wilder was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease and his health quickly began to deteriorate over the six years leading up to his death. Karen detailed the small but significant signs that helped her notice something was wrong with her husband.
"The first signs of trouble were small," she wrote. "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."
Karen helplessly watched as the incurable disease chipped away at her husband and destroyed their family.
“We still managed to have some good times and to laugh, even at the ravages of the disease that was killing him," she noted, adding, "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."
Karen also shared some alarming information she learned through the Alzheimer's Association about caregivers. Turns out, they have a 63 percent higher mortality rate than non-caregivers. 40 percent of these caregivers end up dying before the person they're looking after due to the physical, emotional and mental toll.
"Neither my love, nor science, could save my husband’s life," Karen continued. "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."
Along with the essay, Karen is helping raise awareness for Alzheimer's in other ways. She recently gave permission for her late husband's portrayal of Willy Wonka to be used in a new campaign for the disease called the Pure Imagination Project.
You can read her entire essay at ABC News.