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  • Julie Cheney RN

Trouble swallowing – it can leave a bad taste in your mouth

For people in their later years swallowing does not always go down like it should.

A number of different conditions can interfere with the process and strength of swallowing. Strokes are a particularly common cause, but other issues, for example, general frailty, Parkinson’s disease and a history of throat surgery or cancers are common culprits that can interfere with swallowing. This, in turn, can lead to people choking or aspirating food or fluids into their lungs. Apart from being a terrible feeling it can also lead to life threatening lung infections.

Speech Pathology Australia has described statistics that around 15-30 percent of people aged 65 and over living in the community have a swallowing difficulty, and that there are many more people who live in residential facilities with the problem. It’s not just swallowing what’s in the mouth that can lead to difficulty. Discomfort or fear when chewing, taking medications, and drinking water can all be a problem. This can quickly lead to the situation where the person becomes malnourished or dehydrated.

Allied health professionals who support people’s swallowing are called Speech Pathologists. They can assess the person and give a lot of suggestions about how to manage it, such as better techniques and aids to support independence and safety. If you are caring for a person in their later years at home, the service can be funded via a Chronic Disease Management care plan from your GP.

A few simple strategies might start you off with easing the burden of swallowing difficulties.

  • Provide thickened fluids to offset low drinking levels, such as jellies, thicker custards.

  • Use of straws and sipper cups to stem the fast flow of fluids.

  • Softer and/or smaller foods where the texture is altered to be easier to swallow in the absence of a lot of chewing, such as avocado, meats cut to very small sizes, small portions on the fork. (Significantly changed textures are called minced or pureed foods)

  • Allow the person to complete chewing and swallowing what is in their mouth before adding more, and don't mix foods and fluids..

  • Ensure the person is alert before putting food in their mouth.

  • Having the person sit upright when eating or drinking.

Keeping the mouth clean and healthy, including dental care and denture cleaning and fitting.

swallowing might seem like a simple, natural thing to do, but for many it' s the source of great distress. If you are concerned, seek the support of a Speech Pathologist. It might just change your life!

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