Those with swallowing disorders (dysphagia) may notice pain while swallowing and others may not be able to swallow at all. Still others may not be able to swallow saliva, foods, or liquids in a safe manner. If you are wondering what happens if you can’t swallow, the quick answer is that eating becomes a serious challenge. This means that the loss of the ability to swallow may lead to serious medical conditions, including malnutrition.
Feel Loss of the Ability to Swallow Among the Elderly, Why?
Some old people experience loss of ability to swallow. Now let's look at some of the common reasons.
Saliva is a key part of the ability to swallow and therefore when its production reduces with age, the loss of the ability to swallow becomes more common. In addition to being caused by old age, impaired saliva production may also be a side effect of medication. You can treat low saliva production by adding liquids to meals and changing the diet, but if conditions get progressively worse, patients may eventually need to use a feeding tube in order to receive proper nutrition.
Another factor associated with aging is the weakening of muscles, known as muscle atrophy. This happens from aging as well as a lack of exercise and facial muscles are not exceptions. Most of the time, dysphagia from muscle weakness is treated by a speech-language pathologist. Patients use muscle strengthening exercises to improve strength and coordination. In many cases, the elderly will need to be retrained in order to eat or to do so in a certain way, such as with their head turned to the side when eating.
One of the most common causes of the loss of the ability to swallow among the elderly is the development of osteophytes, which are bony protrusions within the spinal column. These osteophytes will enlarge and eventually bumps may press on the esophagus, making it difficult to swallow. According to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, if an older person has issues swallowing, you should thicken their food and encourage them to chew their food a little bit longer.
Alzheimer also slowly affects someone’s ability to function. It tends to begin with lapses in judgement or memory, but over time the patient will begin to have issues with swallowing and other bodily functions.
Dementia will occur when the brain begins to shut down and this can make patients lose control of various bodily functions. Dementia patients can experience loss of the ability to swallow or simply forget how to swallow correctly because they forget how the swallowing reflex is triggered.
6. Parkinson's Disease
Parkinson’s disease is also linked to the loss of the ability to swallow due to no longer having control over the mouth or throat muscles. This in turn leads to swallowing and chewing issues.
If a stroke occurs and affects the portion of the brain responsible for controlling swallowing, this may lead to dysphagia or related issues. That can mean difficulties or pain while swallowing, drinking, or eating. The majority of people will be able to regain the ability to swallow in just several weeks, but the exact recovery time will vary based on stroke severity.
8. Other Causes
- According to the Mayo Clinic, many of the swallowing issues of the elderly are due to neurological issues that occur before food enters the esophagus. In this case, patients will frequently choke on food, causing it to travel through their windpipe instead of their esophagus.
- It is also possible for a coughing fit to interfere with the ability to swallow. This reaction may be due to dehydration or poor nutrition, both of which are common among older patients. In these cases, the stress associated with the embarrassment of eating in public will lead to an episode of dysphagia.
How to Deal With Loss of the Ability to Swallow Among the Elderly
If you are asking yourself “how long will my dad live” because he can’t swallow anymore, remember that there are treatment options for those who can no longer swallow. It will not necessarily even require surgery or other invasive measures as those with issues swallowing or chewing can begin by taking small steps to make it safer and easier to swallow.
1. Position Correctly
- Always sit completely upright while eating, preferable at a 90° angle.
- Tilt the head forward slightly.
- Stay standing or sitting upright for between 15 and 20 minutes following every meal.
2. Eat in the Right Place
- Eat in an area with minimal distractions.
- Concentrate on eating and drinking as opposed to other tasks.
- Don’t talk when there is food in the mouth.
3. Mind Quantity and Speed
- Always eat your food slowly.
- Either cut your food into smaller pieces or have someone do it for you. Be sure to take the time to chew it thoroughly, waiting until it is liquid in the mouth before you swallow.
- Avoid eating more than a half teaspoon of food in one bite.
4. Swallow Carefully
- Don’t be afraid to swallow several times for every bite or sip, perhaps even 2 to 3 times.
- If you notice liquid or food catching in your throat, gently clear your throat or cough. Then swallow one more time before breathing. Repeat this process if necessary.
- Make a conscious effort to swallow frequently.
5. Manage Saliva
- Drink many fluids throughout the day and at meals.
- Increasing saliva production will improve the frequency with which you swallow. To do so, drink lemon-flavored water or occasionally suck on lemon ice, ice chips, or popsicles.
6. Know the Consistency of Food
- Avoid eating foods which are tough to chew whenever possible (preferably eliminate them completely). Instead, opt for soft foods.
- Try pureeing food using a blender.
- Some people notice that thin liquids lead to coughing. In this case use a liquid thickener that is recommended by a professional like a speech pathologist. Another option is to swap out thin liquids for thicker ones, such as changing plain broth to cream soup or juice to nectar.
7. Take Your Medications
- If you take medications and experience the loss of the ability to swallow, try crushing your pills to mix them with pudding or applesauce.
- Ask your pharmacist or doctor for liquid versions of your medications.
- Ask your pharmacist which pills shouldn’t be crushed.
A Story About Taking Care of Patient with Eating Problem
This real story can help thosetaking care of someone who can no longer swallow by showing them how other people get through this tough experience:
"My husband has Parkinson’s and suffered from aspiration pneumonia. He had to use a feeding tube, but within several months he could swallow again. We slowly reintroduced food until he could eat regular food again, although fluids were still a challenge.
After three years, his condition got worse. We had to switch him to mechanical food. After around a year we switched him to pureed food to prevent choking.
After another year, he needed a feeding tube again to eat and he had to use it for around a year. During this period, I could give him a “pleasure feeding” if I thought he could swallow. Eventually, my husband lost his appetite and started refusing to eat. We kept doing tube feedings and although he lost weight, it worked for several months.
He continued to worsen and his lungs would fill with liquids from drinks or food he received, so we had to stop giving him food. The saga lasted over four years, but I was happy to have him for this extra time and we were able to adjust."