Difficulty swallowing- commonly known as dysphagia- is a condition that affects approximately 15 percent of elderly adults. Dysphagia is the inability to easily pass food or liquids from the mouth, into the throat, and into the esophagus to the stomach during the process of swallowing. If your elderly loved one is showing signs of having difficulty swallowing, we will be discussing what it means and options for managing symptoms.
What is Dysphagia?
While the act of swallowing seems simple and almost mindless, the process actually involves almost 50 different muscles and nerves to move food from your mouth, down the throat and into the stomach to be digested. Most often, medical complications like stroke, cognitive disorders, or cancer of the throat, mouth or esophagus can be a contributing factor in developing dysphagia.
Depending on the severity, dysphagia can cause complications like choking, gagging and can even be painful when attempting to swallow. One of the biggest risks, however, is malnutrition and dehydration. Those who suffer from dysphagia may be less inclined to eat or drink due to the difficulty or discomfort, making them less likely to maintain a healthy weight.
What Signs Should I Look For?
There are several symptoms that can indicate that your loved one is having difficulty swallowing, such as:
– Choking or gagging on food or drinks
– Decline in appetite/rapid weight loss
– Having a “wet” sounding voice, especially after eating or drinking
– Shortness of breath while eating
– Sensation of food or liquid being stuck in the throat or chest
If you notice any of these signs, it may be beneficial to consult a medical professional who can do a physical examination of the esophagus and can perform an endoscopic swallowing test for an official diagnosis.
Managing Swallowing Difficulties
If your loved one is diagnosed with dysphagia, there are several tips you can follow to manage their condition:
Consult a Speech or Language Therapist
In some cases, your loved one may be referred to a speech or language therapist that can help them learn new swallowing techniques. Posture is an important factor when it comes to swallowing food properly, so they will stress the importance of sitting up straight while eating and drinking, even if they are bed-ridden or in a wheelchair. In some cases, surgery may be required- especially for those who experience narrowing, blockages, vocal-chord paralysis or treating esophageal cancer.
Have Smaller, Softer Meals
If your loved one is having difficulty swallowing, they should eat foods that are soft and easy to consume. This can include foods like yogurt, cottage cheese, soup and smoothies. It is important to prioritize protein- so opt for options like full-fat yogurt and protein powders that can be added to beverages and smoothies. A doctor will likely also suggest reducing alcohol and caffeine consumption because it can have a drying-effect to the mouth and throat. In more serious cases, some patients may require a feeding tube through the nose or stomach.
Many meals can also be puréed into a pâté-like consistency, which can be helpful in allowing seniors to continue eating their regularly enjoyed meals. Click here to read our article on the soft-foods diet.