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Managing Dysphagia as a Caregiver

Dysphagia, the medical term for difficulty swallowing, can be a serious problem that comes with other age-related illnesses such as strokes, cancer, or Alzheimer’s. The condition itself can also lead to problems such as dehydration or malnutrition.

It’s estimated that dysphagia affects up to 6 million seniors in the US and is characterized by weak throat muscles that make it difficult to swallow food and liquid.   

If you’re a caregiver for someone suffering from the condition or struggle with swallowing yourself, here are a few safety tips for managing dysphagia.

1. Use thickener for swallowing medication

Swallowing tablets can be an incredibly difficult thing for those with dysphagia. However, depending on other conditions the patient is living with, it may be necessary for them to take medication. 

To avoid pills getting stuck, they should be crushed and added to a thickener like Simply Thick, or a thicker food like apple sauce. 

Note: Not all medications are suitable for crushing, so it’s always best to speak to your physician or pharmacist about new prescriptions. You may be able to request an oral suspension alternative. 

2. Avoid straws

While it might seem like a logical idea to use straws to limit the amount of liquid that enters the mouth at a time, speech pathologists generally don’t recommend straws for those with dysphagia. 

Rather than reduce flow rates, straws can increase the flow of liquids, making dysphagia more difficult to manage. As such, choking or aspiration could occur if the liquid ‘goes down the wrong pipe’. 

3. Keep hydrated

No matter what age, hydration is an integral part of a healthy lifestyle. Those with dysphagia may struggle to drink water and other fluids. Therefore, in order to ensure patients stay hydrated, fluids should be thickened with gels or powders to ensure swallowing is easy and smooth. 

4. Nutrition

It can be difficult for those with dysphagia to get all the nutrition they need. Thankfully, there are ways to incorporate highly nutritious ingredients and foods into their diet. 

Food likes soft cheeses, peanut butter, and Greek yogurt are great ways to add calories to meals in a delicious and palatable way.  

Adding protein powders to blended banana and milk or other thicker purees can also help seniors to build muscle and maintain weight. 

5. Sitting upright 

When seniors are being treated at home or in hospital, backrests should be in place to help them keep their heads up straight while consuming food and drink. Slouching or lying down can create further difficulties for swallowing. 

6. Patience

Accompanying chronic illnesses such as Parkinson’s can make mealtimes stressful and exhausting for those with dysphagia. Eating can be a long process, and anyone who is caring for a senior should be incredibly patient. 

Rather than having specific meal times, it may be easier to eat small quantities throughout the day so that the process can be less tiring.  

If you are concerned about caring for a senior that is showing the signs of dysphagia, it’s crucial that you speak to a physician as soon as possible.