Easing the Challenge of Dysphagia
Swallowing is an essential part of eating. In order to live healthily, a person must be able to eat in a safe and efficient manner. When there are difficulties with swallowing in seniors, the patient works with a speech language pathologist (SLP) in speech and language therapy to learn strategies to get around the difficulties. The SLP also teaches the patient exercises to strengthen the relevant muscles in the mouth and throat.
Swallowing Difficulties in Seniors
Difficulties with swallowing in seniors can occur for several reasons, including:
- following a stroke
- due to head trauma
- nerve or muscle damage due to surgery or illness
- as a result of medical treatment
- as part of dementia
In the case of a stoke event, while still in the hospital, the medical staff would watch a patient to see if they are swallowing effectively. They might suggest doing a swallow test assessment. Before discharge, the hospital will make recommendations for the patient based on the results of the test.
In short-term rehab following hospitalization, there would be an opportunity to learn lifestyle changes, dietary changes and swallowing exercises. These changes and exercises would help with difficulties with swallowing in seniors.
Lifestyle and Dietary Changes
The SLP would recommend strategies such as these:
- Get the head/body into a good position that will assist with a good swallow
- Put food in strategic places in the mouth to promote safe eating
- Include soft foods in the diet
- Cut larger pieces of solid food into small pieces or take small bites
- Chewy food can be turned into a puree
- Runny liquids and drinks can be thickened, so there is more control when drinking
- Eat smaller meals, more frequently
- Use a straw or a small spoon to eat
- If some foods cause more trouble than others, avoid eating those foods for now
- Avoid items that could give heartburn, such as alcohol, coffee and tobacco
If changes such as these are not sufficient and the patient is not getting good enough nutrition, the dietitian would recommend dietary supplements. In severe cases, a patient would need a liquid dietary supplement to avoid weight loss and dehydration.
Exercises for Dysphagia – Swallowing Therapy
Since there are different types of dysphagia from different causes, the exercises need to be matched accordingly.
Swallowing Therapy might include:
- Re-learning to co-ordinate the swallowing muscles
- Neurologically stimulating the swallowing reflex
- Strengthening the throat muscles
- Exercises to help control tongue movements
- Exercises to do at home following release from hospital or as an out-patient in a rehab center
- Read about exercises that you can do online such as from VeryWell , and John Hopkins Medicine
Any exercises that a patient does, should be under the instruction of their SLP or therapist.
Swallowing in the Future
It is important to stay hopeful and look to a brighter future.
As the patient practices the exercises, the muscles of the tongue, the cheeks and the throat will become stronger and stronger.
A patient may wish to keep medical-type of diary, in order to liaise with their medical team. The patient can also keep a separate space for yourself. There they can note their own progress and give self-encouragement. For example, there was choking, note when the frequency is reduced; note which types of food they can now eat and so on.
Difficulties with swallowing in seniors are a challenge to an important part of the eating process. By finding ways to get around the difficulty and doing the recommended exercises, a patient can hope for improvement and relief.