Just before she turned 65, about 13 years ago, Donna Beveridge noticed that she forgets things and often feels overwhelmed with details that have never bothered her before. She made a list of everything she observed in herself and presented it to her GP, who referred her to a memory clinic for extensive testing, followed by an appointment with a neurologist.
“He said, ‘You probably have early-stage Alzheimer’s,'” she said, “and you have to be prepared to be in a nursing home within seven years. And that’s about it.”
Donna Beveridge, 78, of Saco was told she had Alzheimer’s disease a few years ago, only to be later suggested by a neurologist that she had sleep apnea. Credit: Courtesy Donna Beveridge
At the suggestion of her daughter, Beveridge, who is 78 years old and lives in Saco, took some watercolor painting classes and was so excited that she started charting her Alzheimer’s journey through her paintings. She had art exhibitions and also presented her work in hospitals and various workshops.
She also joined an Alzheimer’s Association support group for people with early-stage Alzheimer’s disease. Most of the other participants had similar symptoms, but Beveridge also noticed that some people’s symptoms progressed while theirs did not. She knew people react differently, so she thought nothing of it.
About five years after she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, she saw a new neurologist who asked if she had ever been tested for sleep apnea. She didn’t have that. In fact, no one had mentioned sleep apnea before.
“He sent me for a test,” she said, “and the result was that I had severe sleep apnea. My oxygen level, which should be over 90, was in the 60s and 70s. Apparently that killed my brain cells. “
When people have sleep apnea, they stop breathing while they sleep, which temporarily cuts off the oxygen supply to brain cells. When it happens, the brain steps in and alerts the respiratory system to breathe again. However, repeated suspension of breathing, even for a few seconds, can have serious consequences. One of them is memory problems.
Her new neurologist recommended that Beveridge wear a continuous positive air pressure or CPAP machine while sleeping to open her airways and prevent episodes of sleep apnea. It didn’t miraculously take away all of her cognitive problems, but she felt better almost immediately.
“I had a tremendous amount of fatigue that comes with sleep apnea,” she said, “and it mixed in with my cognitive problems, making it very difficult to feel like myself and do my normal things. The CPAP made a big difference. “
Donna Beveridge, 78, of Saco took up watercolor painting to chart her journey with what she believed was Alzheimer’s. This painting is called “This is a good day”. Credit: Courtesy Donna Beveridge
Three years later, Beveridge saw a third neurologist who found that her diagnosis of Alzheimer’s was no longer true. She still has some cognitive problems, but nothing seems to be getting worse or getting worse.
“I’m not that good at organizing things,” she said, “and I can get overwhelmed with details. I also have typical things that older people often do, with finding words, remembering names and the like. I have to take very good notes and write everything down, but that wasn’t what I had to do before. “
After all, not having Alzheimer’s disease was a great relief, but Beveridge was still struggling to make the transition after believing in it for so many years.
“I was having a hard time when the diagnosis was taken away,” she explained. “I had my identity and I had accepted who I was and what was going to happen to me. But it was good. I am happy to have my life. Absolutely.”
She hasn’t painted any pictures lately, but Beveridge still speaks to groups. Your focus now is on ruling out any possible causes of dementia or memory problems. In retrospect, she is amazed that sleep apnea was not thought of earlier. She also developed a new passion – volunteering for an organization called Age Friendly Saco. She coordinates the Handy Neighbors Program, which offers simple services that enable people to stay in their own four walls in old age.
She is busy and she is happy. She is also well aware of the lessons she learned when she thought she had Alzheimer’s disease.
“One of the things I think is important is that I accepted my life when I thought I had Alzheimer’s,” she said. “Life was much better for me, finding this place and then figuring out what else life could be. I think even with the worst diagnoses, it helps to find a place of acceptance and then make the most of your life. I would like to think that whatever happens to me at some point, I would see it that way again. “