Swallowing is something we all do, typically without thinking. Not only is swallowing an integral part of eating, glands in our mouth continuously secrete saliva keeping our mouths moist and clean. The saliva moistens food to facilitate chewing and swallowing. It is estimated that the typical person swallows 2-4 times per minute. With 1,440 minutes in a day, that’s a lot of swallowing in one 24-hour period.
Having trouble swallowing can create serious health problems for seniors including difficulty taking oral medication, poor nutrition, dehydration, loss of appetite and weight loss.
Signs that a Person has a Swallowing Problem
According to the National Institute of Health’s online health forum, MedlinePlus, symptoms of swallowing problems include:
- Coughing or choking, either during or after eating
- Gurgling sounds from the throat, during or after eating
- Throat clearing after drinking or swallowing
- Slow chewing or eating
- Coughing food back up after eating
- Hiccups after swallowing
- Chest discomfort during or after swallowing
What Causes Swallowing Problems?
There are a number of reasons that swallowing may become more difficult as we age. These include:
- Dental problems including cracked or missing teeth, poor fitting dentures, mouth ulcers, and bleeding gums
- Loss of muscle strength in the mouth and throat (often happens to those with Parkinson’s and some forms of dementia)
- Dry Mouth
Dry mouth happens when the salivary glands fail to produce enough saliva to keep the mouth moist and is one of the most common causes of swallowing problems and can be caused by illnesses such as diabetes and Parkinson’s, medication and medical treatment such as radiation for certain cancers, and autoimmune diseases including rheumatoid arthritis.
Tips to Make Eating – and Swallowing – Easier
The website WebMD suggests the following six tips to help older adults with swallowing problems eat more comfortably and safely.
- Tweak the 3 Ts
These are tastes, temperature, and textures. When a varied diet is offered, it helps keep the mouth awake and on task. You can also switch off between bites of something cold and tart, like lemon ice, with something warm and bland, like mashed potatoes.
- Sit Upright
During meals, and for 45 minutes after eating, sit upright with your head tilted slightly forward.
- Limit Distractions
Stay focused during mealtimes, especially if the person eating has had a stroke or is in the early stages of dementia. Do not ask questions while the person is eating.
- Keep the Mouth Moist
Before meals, swab the mouth of the person eating with a disposable oral swab to help moisturize the mouth so swallowing will be easier.
Keep a drink handy during meals. Sip water between every single bite to help move food along. If a straw is being used to sip liquids, cut the straw down so there is less distance for the liquid to travel. If drinking water or other thin liquids cause coughing, there are over-the-counter liquid thickeners that, when added to the drink, make swallowing easier. Thickeners can also be added to food without changing taste or appearance.
- Tiny Is Better
Cut up solid foods into bite-size pieces to minimize the risk of choking and encourage slow eating and thorough chewing.
- Swallow Often
It may be helpful to prompt the person eating to swallow two or three times per bite or sip. If food or liquid catches in the person’s throat, have them cough gently, and swallow again before taking a breath.
As always, when a person is comfortable and relaxed, the outcome of anything they do will be improved.