Coping with Dysphagia

doctor examining senior

Most of us never think about the muscles it takes to swallow our food and liquids. Unfortunately, for many seniors, this can be difficult and painful, and turn into a serious condition called dysphagia. Having dysphagia means it takes more effort and time to move food and liquid to the stomach. In some cases, swallowing can become impossible.

Dysphagia is serious and can affect a person physically and mentally. The physical obstacles are more obvious, while emotionally it can lead to isolation. Seniors can become embarrassed to eat in front of others and may stop attending social situations that involve eating.

What Causes Dysphagia

Dysphagia occurs more in older adults and could result from one of many causes. It is sometimes hard to pinpoint the direct problem, as swallowing is very complex. Often though, it is caused by a weakness or impairment to one or more nerves or muscles that cause sensation and movement for chewing and swallowing. It can be the result of:

  • A stroke
  • Dementia
  • ALS
  • Multiple sclerosis
  • Gastroesophageal reflux disorder (GERD)
  • Radiation therapy
  • Cerebral palsy
  • Cleft lip or palate
  • Head and neck cancers

Dysphagia Signs to Look For

Occasional difficulty when swallowing can happen to anyone from time to time, so how do you know when it’s serious for your loved one? Look for these symptoms:

  • Having pain when swallowing
  • Being unable to swallow
  • Having the sensation that food is stuck in the throat, chest or behind the breastbone
  • Drooling
  • Being hoarse
  • Bringing food back up
  • Frequent heartburn
  • Having food or stomach acid back up into the throat
  • Unexpected weight loss
  • Coughing or gagging when swallowing
  • Having to cut food into smaller pieces or avoid certain foods

Tips for Coping With Dysphagia

A variety of strategies and exercises can help improve the ease of swallowing if your loved one happens to be a sufferer of dysphagia. These tips can help him or her get through their daily meals.

  1. Maintain good oral hygiene to reduce the chance of acquiring pneumonia.
  2. Sit upright when eating.
  3. Reduce distractions.
  4. Eat only when alert.
  5. Adopt safe eating habits by clearing all food and liquids from the mouth before taking the next
  6. Consult with a licensed Speech-Language Pathologist who can suggest appropriate protective strategies such as straw drinking or using a spoon rather than a cup.
  7. Try smaller, frequent meals if a whole meal is too tiring.

Find Help at Peabody

If your senior parent or loved one is experiencing swallowing difficulties, it’s important to seek treatment as soon as possible. A treatment program, like the Synchrony Dysphagia Treatment Program at Peabody, can help improve swallowing function.

The Synchrony program uses a system that enables visualization of swallowing. A sensor is placed on the skin and captures electrical activity of the muscles. Benefits of this information include:

  • Real-time feedback on swallowing activity
  • Guided therapeutic exercises
  • Interactive activities that enhance patient motivation
  • Generates objective data

Along with this data, the program provides additional exercises to build strength, electrical pulses to improve weak muscles, and biofeedback to improve function.

For more information on this program, contact Peabody Retirement Community and learn more about specialized treatment programs at the rehab center. Peabody offers a range of senior living options along with many senior care services.

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