‘Agonizing': Widow Advocates for Alzheimer's Disease Cure Following Death of Late Husband Gene Wilder

Since her husband's 2016 death, Karen Wilder has tirelessly advocated for an Alzheimer's disease cure

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For years, San Diego County woman Karen Wilder has tirelessly advocated for a cure for Alzheimer’s Disease. You may not know her name, but you’re probably familiar with her late husband.

Gene Wilder, best known for his starring role in “Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory,” died in 2016 after being diagnosed with the disease. From “Young Frankenstein” to “Blazing Saddles,” Wilder starred in some of Hollywood's most famous comedies.

It’s his iconic performance as Willy Wonka, however, that continues to make him a household name among younger generations. It’s one role that even his wife admits there being a connection between the fictional character and her husband.

"In what ways? In the ways he was always honest,” Karen said. “It was very important to him. It was important that people be trustworthy and that you took care of people who deserved it. So, I think in that way. Plus. he sang this beautiful song."

The walls of their Rancho Sante Fe home are adorned with accolades and photographs from the prolific actor’s ventures as a singer, writer and even as a painter for works of art he made at home.

"He was an international icon,” his widow said. “People loved him, and he was an honestly unique wonderful human being.”

An undated image of Karen and Gene Wilder.

Karen showcased a photograph that’s a particularly prized possession for her – an autograph from her late beloved on an image of his character as Willy Wonka.

"It's hard to write, I love... and he didn't get you in,” the autograph read.

It’s a small, personal glimpse into his late struggle with Alzheimer’s disease. Few people knew he had it before his death in 2016.

Karen said they didn't hide it on purpose; it was an all-consuming endeavor and at times, in her words, hopeless. His wife recalls being his No. 1 caretaker during the actor’s most trying times, and added it was no easy feat, emotionally.

"Agonizing. Every day and every time,” she described it as. “I was with him as much as I could. Every time I'd see him slip away from me, it would affect my gut. It was truly -- I felt ill from it because I was so sad."

Alzheimer’s disease impacts millions of people across the world, especially women making up two thirds of those diagnosed. Lezza Gibbons watched her mother suffer from Alzheimer’s and now she’s on a mission to create resources for families impacted by the illness. She tells “California Live” about BrainGuide, a questionnaire that helps identify the onset of Alzheimer’s.

Since his death, Wilder's legacy has taken a turn. Karen teamed up with the non-profit organization, Alzheimer’s Association, to use his name in the fight for a cure, including the reediting of the famous Willy Wonka song she loves so dearly.

In the edit, key pieces from each background seemingly disappear without any warning.

"It’s a wonderfully portrayed, poignant piece that brings attention to what happens when you think you have everything and it just slips away," she said.

Because of her work advocating for a cure, Karen Wilder will be honored with the “Hope Award” at the Alzheimer's Association Gala. It goes to people whose life stories and activities have spurred others to take action on behalf of the millions of Americans with the disease.

Karen said as long as Gene’s name continues to bring money towards research and care, she's going to proudly use memory for good.

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