Alzheimer’s Patients May Have Difficulty Swallowing — These Tips Can Help

Even in the early stages, people with Alzheimer’s may start having trouble with everyday tasks like cooking and cleaning. However, as the disease progresses, they may struggle with the most basic activities, including chewing and swallowing their food and drinks. Fortunately, there are some ways to minimize the risks and help your loved one eat comfortably and safely.

Understanding the Problem

People with Alzheimer’s may struggle with swallowing for many reasons. Photo: Flickr/Jamie

Swallowing is a complex procedure that requires coordinated neurological signals to multiple muscle groups, and dementia can interfere with those signals. The muscles that control swallowing are prone to weakening over time as well. People with Alzheimer’s may become distracted and forget to chew their food. In addition, they may be unable to express discomfort caused by poorly fitting dentures, dry mouth caused by medications, or other physical issues.

The Dangers of Difficult Swallowing

Male doctor examining a senioe woman in hospital ward
Photo: Adobe Stock
The most common is simple malnutrition and dehydration. Many people with Alzheimer’s forget or are reluctant to eat and drink, which makes them more susceptible to illness and falls. Difficulty swallowing can also lead to choking or aspiration, which occurs when food or fluids enter the lungs. This can lead to pneumonia and death.

Recognize the Signs

Photo: Pixabay/longleanna

As a caregiver, you may be in an ideal position to notice that your loved one is having trouble swallowing. Some common symptoms are a moist-sounding voice, frequent coughing and coughing immediately after drinking. Your loved one may also tend to hold food in his or her mouth without swallowing or simply be reluctant to eat and drink at all.

There Are Solutions

Photo: Pixabay/sarcifilippo

If you think your loved one may be having trouble swallowing, the first step is to seek medical assistance. Begin by contacting a primary care physician or other regular care provider. Ask for a referral to a speech and language therapist or other specialist. These therapists can help you develop a personalized meal and care plan.

Keep Food Manageable

Photo: Flickr/Chris Waits

Present food to your loved one in easy-to-handle ways. Consider cutting even small food items into bite-sized chunks to minimize the amount of steps involved, or use a blender to create a puree. Make sure the food has a consistent texture, as lumps or runny liquids can be difficult to swallow cleanly. If your loved one takes medication in pill form, ask the doctor or pharmacist if other options are available.

Sip Carefully

Photo: Flickr/Markus Spiske

Thin liquids can be difficult to swallow and increase the risk of aspiration, so use a flavorless thickening agent to make swallowing easier. Avoid straws, sippy cups or other delivery routes that are difficult to control. Instead, have your loved one take small sips from an open cup. Make sure the drink is cold or lukewarm, as hot drinks can cause your loved one to swallow too quickly.

Plan Your Mealtimes

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Drowsiness and fatigue can make swallowing even more difficult, so try to schedule meals for times when your loved one tends to be more alert. Smaller, more frequent meals also minimize muscle fatigue from eating. If your loved one seems particularly distracted or disinterested, don’t force it. You can always try again later. Never rush through the mealtime.

Encourage Proper Posture

Photo: Pixabay/JenniferPBC

The wrong posture can make swallowing more difficult and increase the risk of aspiration, so keep an eye on how your loved one is sitting. She should be sitting up straight or leaning slightly forward with the chin pointed down. Don’t be afraid to remind or gently reposition your loved one if her head tilts back or otherwise slips into a dangerous position.

Reminders May Be Necessary

Photo: Flickr/leosaumurejr

If you notice your loved one holding food in his mouth, a gentle verbal reminder may get him to start chewing and swallowing again. You can also gently stroke his throat to encourage a swallow response, but make sure the food is thoroughly chewed. Check your loved one’s mouth between bites and at the end of the meal to make sure everything was swallowed.

Although eating may become more difficult for people with Alzheimer’s, the right support can keep them healthy and encourage independence. Learn more about how Alzheimer’s disease can affect someone’s ability eat and how you can help.

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