As dementia worsens, patients often forget how to do some of the most menial tasks, even things they used to do on a daily basis. Swallowing, in particular, is an activity you wouldn’t think you could ever forget to do (or forget how to do), and yet, many people with late-stage Alzheimer’s and other dementias struggle to do it.
Dementia is currently an incurable disease, so nothing anyone can do will make swallowing cease to be an issue for the rest of the person’s life. However, there are some things you can do to prolong a person’s quality of life and make sure they stay safe from aspiration pneumonia, dehydration, and other health issues that may come with trouble swallowing. And we know just the person who can help.
Teepa Snow, MS, OTR/L, FAOTA, is a dementia care and education specialist with a background in occupational therapy and over 30 years of experience, which has taught her a lot about how people with dementia think and what can be done to help them cope with this horrible disease.
In an effort to improve care and quality of life for dementia patients (and their caregivers), Teepa leads classes and seminars focused on difficult dementia-related situations like the one described above. Her goal is to help caregivers understand the situation from a different perspective—the perspective of someone with dementia—and then give them tools to use in difficult everyday situations as a caretaker.
Teepa stresses that a caretaker who’s in charge of someone with late-stage dementia has a very important job: paying attention to the patient. This means disengaging from whatever is going on around the room to be able to put all your energy into the patient, even when the work is as boring as watching someone swallow.
Even though a task like helping someone eat or drink seems simple, the details are very important. For example, if the patient forgets to swallow a drink of water and then tries to breathe while it’s still in their mouth, they’re at high risk for aspiration pneumonia, which can lead to all sorts of serious health complications.
“Every swallow I put in, I better know where it went,” Teepa says.
Some of Teepa’s other tips include thickening the liquid for easier swallowing and, eventually, using purees instead of liquid altogether. But our favorite tip is called the “dry swallow” and involves tricking the brain in a surprising (but effective) way! Check out the video below to see the expert at work!
Elizabeth Nelson is a wordsmith, an alumna of Aquinas College in Grand Rapids, a four-leaf-clover finder, and a grammar connoisseur. She has lived in west Michigan since age four but loves to travel to new (and old) places. In her free time, she. . . wait, what’s free time?