Dysphagia, or difficulty swallowing, is common in seniors with Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia, particularly in the latest stages of the disease. These individuals may have trouble initiating or completing a swallow or may attempt to breathe in the middle of a swallow. The patient’s brain may even get distracted after the patient takes a bite of food, causing it to forget to send a message to the body to swallow, leaving the patient with a full mouth and unsure of what to do with it.
Dysphagia puts people with dementia at risk for dehydration and malnutrition because they may avoid eating and drinking and struggle to get enough nutrition. It also increases the risk for more severe problems like choking and aspiration pneumonia—a type of pneumonia caused when food, mucus, or other foreign objects are breathed into the lungs. In an elderly person, aspiration pneumonia could easily be deadly.
Because of the serious potential issues involved in a case of dysphagia, it’s important to do everything we can to ensure that dementia patients are swallowing properly. While dementia does not currently have a cure and people who suffer from it will eventually be unable to eat without a feeding tube, there are some tricks you can use to delay the inevitable and keep people with late-stage dementia eating and drinking properly—and safely.
Try these tricks to make swallowing easier for a person who suffers from late-stage dementia and dysphagia without sacrificing the taste of the food.
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Make more flavorful purees.
Purees are among the oldest tricks in the book for helping a person who has difficulty chewing or swallowing eat food. However, many purees end up flavorless due to added liquids (like milk or water) and the many-times-over increased surface area of the food.
Diane Wolff, who is sometimes known as “The Queen of Puree,” says she was disgusted at the puree options available when her mother’s health began to fail. “Commercially available pureed foods were horrible,” she says. “One caregiver compared them to dog food, and I think that was being kind.”
In her cookbook The Essential Puree: The A to Z Guidebook, Wolff advises adding sauces to pureed foods to carry more flavor of the original cuisine.
Get the senses involved.
You may not be surprised to hear that eating is about more than just your taste buds, but we tend to forget this fact when it comes to feeding elderly people with dementia. If you want to get a person with dementia to eat properly (and pay more attention to their swallowing), you’ve got to give them some motivation to do so.
Before you puree a meal for a person with dementia, prepare the meal normally and allow the person to see and smell what you’ve created (or let them see and smell the raw ingredients). You can even try preparing extra food and not pureeing it so that the patient can see and smell that food while eating the puree, just to give them a little extra motivation and hold their attention better.