On a Dementia Patient

“I have lost myself,” Auguste Deter said. She had been institutionalized in the early 1900s with onset dementia and, like many patients in her situation, suffered from the fear of not being able to recognize her loving husband and her beloved daughter–or herself–any more. So, in every way possible, Auguste had indeed lost herself.

Auguste had been born in what is now Germany in 1850. Her family was poor but still managed to send Auguste to school where she excelled. However, social norms of the time provided her limited opportunities in furthering her education, and she became a seamstress at the age of 14. A few years later, she married Carl Deter, a worker in the relatively new railroad industry. They had their daughter, Thekla, and Carl would tell her doctor later that their relationship was happy and that the couple got along incredibly well with few disagreements in the marriage.

At the age of 50, Auguste began manifesting signs of her dementia. She began forgetting small things, then she began to seem to not be able to recognize Carl or Thekla. She experienced a fugue state at times. She forgot how to cook things she had cooked hundreds of times. The familiar became the foreign; the usual became the strange. Carl found that he could not care for his increasingly mentally unstable wife, and he had to find an institution that would care for her.

As you can imagine, in the early 1900s, care for dementia patients was not the best. The facility Carl found for Auguste proved to be too expensive, but the doctor in charge of Auguste’s case pulled some strings and managed to allow Auguste to stay in the facility. The doctor made an offer. He told Carl that Auguste could stay there without charge if he could have access to all her medical records and be able to examine her brain when she passed away. Carl agreed.

Often in dementia cases, the patient begins to degenerate exponentially. Auguste grew mistrustful of everyone. She had conversations with people who weren’t present. She usually ignored people who were. One of the many things that fascinated her doctor was that Auguste exhibited these signs much earlier than most dementia patients. It had been his experience that such symptoms came from people much older than Auguste’s 50 years. This was only one reason why he wished to know more about his patient’s brain and wanted to keep her close. To compound the situation, Auguste usually did not recognize that she had the symptoms she had.

In 1906, Auguste died of sepsis caused by bedsores.

The doctor that had cared for her and studied her called her illness “The Disease of Forgetfulness.”

His name?

Dr. Alois Alzheimer.

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