Gene Wilder died last week. Known by those of my generation for Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, Blazing Saddles, and Young Frankenstein, his passing brings home that an era is coming to a close. It was a sad moment to learn of his death.
What was not known by many, at least until after his death, was the fact that Gene Wilder died from complications of Alzheimer’s Disease. Many celebrities would use their fame to bring attention to a disease from which they suffered. I applaud that as it helps bring illnesses to public attention, which is one way to gain federal funding for a cure.
However, Mr. Wilder and his family chose to keep his Alzheimer’s private. As his nephew is quoted as saying: “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.” I applaud this decision as well.
Dementia is a disease that changes everything. When we come in contact with someone living with dementia, we tend to focus on what they have lost, what they will lose, what the family will experience. Mr. Wilder and his family did not want these feelings of loss associated with a fan meeting him, preferring instead, an encounter full of laughter and excitement of meeting an icon like Mr. Wilder. Rather than focusing on his loss due to the disease, Mr. Wilder and his family chose to focus on his life and the joy experienced in meeting him. How wonderful it would be if we could do that with all living with Alzheimer’s – continuing to see them as individuals, precious, unique, and capable.
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Beloved and Iconic Funnyman Gene Wilder Dies at 83