The Things We Keep: Gene Wilder and the Refusal to Give in to Alzheimer’s

How do you remember Gene Wilder? Generations have grown up with him as Willy Wonka, mad genius and difficult giant. They remember his fierce outbursts, sly songs, hidden sense of menace, and, ultimately, his heart, in helping a poor child who just wanted to believe. Is that how you remember him? Or is it for his great comedies, those collaborations with Mel Brooks: the shaky sheriff in Blazing Saddles, the scheming schmuck in The Producers, or the not-mad-but-yes-very-mad-scientist in Young Frankenstein? Or, his older movies, like the buddy ones with Richard Pryor where he had the gentleness of a child?

Or do you remember little moments, like the way he moved effortlessly from perfect stillness to highly-calibrated insanity, seemingly in a heartbeat? Do you remember the stillness with which he turned around once his monster started moving, or him screaming how he had created life? How he could be both the arch-eyed straight man and the vortex around which the madness swirled? Is that how you remember him?

Fond memories, now tear-diffused, are what we now have of Gene Wilder. That smile that understood exactly what it was like to be a child, back when the world was filled with awe and magic. That smile that told you he knew where the magic came from. He made memories for us all. And it was memory that was at the forefront of his final years, as he braved Alzheimer’s, in private, so that he could keep the faith and the enchantment—but even more so that we could, so that the children could. He showed us how to keep a hold on who you are, no matter the circumstance, and gave us not only a lesson in how Alzheimer’s can devastate, but, just as importantly, in what it can never take from us.

Gene Wilder and the Impact of Alzheimer’s

When Gene Wilder died on August 29th at the age of 83, many people were shocked to learn it was due to complications from Alzheimer’s disease. No one knew he had it—and, most people still don’t know that it is, in and of itself, a fatal disease.

Alzheimer’s is the 6th-leading cause of death in America. It destroys brain cells, leading to erratic body functions, and, of course, memory loss. Most Alzheimer-related deaths are from complications directly related to the way the disease impacts the body, like blood clots on the brain. It’s not, as many people perceive it, simply a disease of the mind—it’s a disease that kills you.

In revealing that he died from Alzheimer’s, instead of listing other causes of death, Gene Wilder joined legendary basketball coach Pat Summit in demonstrating the fatal realities of the disease. Experts praised this powerful step towards Alzheimer’s awareness. Per the Huffington Post:

There’s such a tendency to not name [Alzheimer’s disease] for what it is, and it’s commendable that they’ve identified it as a cause of death,” said Alzheimer’s disease expert Kristoffer Rhoads, a clinical neuropsychologist at the University of Washington School of Medicine’s Memory and Brain Wellness Center at Harborview.

Putting Up a Good Fight

While it is still not entirely certain what causes Alzheimer’s disease, we know that there are ways to slow it down. Wilder’s family shared that he could still recognize people, and remember them. It’s possible that he and his loved ones used some of these strategies to fight the disease.

  • A healthy diet. We know that eating right benefits the body, and the mind. There is no simple food or diet to prevent Alzheimer’s, no vitamin to cure it, but a healthy diet has been shown to slow the disease, and possibly aid in its prevention.
  • Movement therapy. Mental, physical, and even emotional tension of people who have dementia can be eased, without words, using movement therapy. They can work out negative feelings, and possibly unlock more awareness in their mind. One imagines that a gifted physical comedian like Gene Wilder (remember his cane-dropping slow roll in Willy Wonka or his “this is my shooting hand” shake in Blazing Saddles) could  find comfort in this style of therapy.
  • Hobbies. Activities like gardening, crafts, making music, creating art, or anything with a goal and a process can help keep the mind active. Focusing on solving problems and achieving goals can be a very important mental workout.
  • Memory improvement exercises. The mind is what the brain does, and if the brain works at staying sharp, it is possible to maintain cognitive abilities with the help of memory exercises.

The Power of Imagination

On of the fascinations around Gene Wilder’s death came from the fact that his fans didn’t know he struggled with the disease—not because he was embarrassed, but because he wanted to keep that to himself. He didn’t want to let his disease define him.

After his death, his family released this statement.

We understand for all the emotional and physical challenges this situation presented we have been among the lucky ones — this illness-pirate, unlike in so many cases, never stole his ability to recognize those that were closest to him, nor took command of his central-gentle-life affirming core personality. The decision to wait until this time to disclose his condition wasn’t vanity, but more so that the countless young children that would smile or call out to him “there’s Willy Wonka,” would not have to be then exposed to an adult referencing illness or trouble and causing delight to travel to worry, disappointment or confusion. He simply couldn’t bear the idea of one less smile in the world.

And that, in many ways, is the whole point. He couldn’t let anyone else be saddened by his illness, because to be sad was, in many ways, to be alone. A child who understands illness is one who has lost something. While that is an inevitable circumstance in life, Gene Wilder never wanted to be the cause.

The gracefulness with which Gene Wilder fought Alzheimer’s showed that, if you are diagnosed, you don’t have to retreat into yourself and let this thief take everything from you. Maybe it will progress, no matter what you do. But reach out. Don’t be afraid to let people know. Don’t feel you have to pretend otherwise. There are people who love you, and there are people there to help care for you, within your community. Remember, always, that you are not alone. Even if doing so is hard, even if you feel crushed, reach out. There is magic in this world, and there is goodness. Gene Wilder would want us to always remember that, as long as we possibly can.

He lived in a world of pure imagination. But he knew a secret. He knew that imagination, whether in the form of a child picturing himself winning a Golden Ticket, or you imagining yourself with the person who makes your heart beat fast and your stomach go topsy, is rooted in love. Love is, in the end, an act of wonderful and transformative imagination. We imagine a better world, and through some magic, we make it happen.

That’s what Gene Wilder knew, and what we could see in every expression, every grin buried under an explosion of hysteria, and every crooked smile. We can see it in the courage of his final years, when he refused to make the world less magical. Gene Wilder has passed into the world of memory now, but his gifts, which he turned into his gift to all of us, will never be forgotten.

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