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7 Things For Caregivers To Understand About Dysphagia Patients

Close-up photo of two individuals holding one another’s hands in comfort

If a loved one or friend has been diagnosed with dysphagia, you probably feel concerned, empathetic, and maybe even confused. When you are taking on the caregiver role for a person diagnosed with a swallowing disorder, you may also feel overwhelmed. Understanding the causes of this disorder, as well as the necessary care precautions, and even the emotional aspects involved, will help to making caring for your friend or loved one an easier and more productive experience. Here are some important things to know:

Swallowing disorders are actually quite common. Typically receiving a diagnosis of “dysphagia”, an estimated 15 million Americans have severe issues with swallowing.1

Certain people are at higher risk for dysphagia. The elderly are at particularly high risk for dysphagia. People suffering from neurological disorders, such as post-polio syndrome, multiple sclerosis, muscular dystrophy and Parkinson’s disease may also be challenged by dysphagia. In addition, those affected by sudden neurological damage caused by stroke or spinal cord injuries, can experience difficulty with swallowing.2

Dysphagia can have detrimental, life-threatening effects. In addition to potential choking hazards, swallowing disorders can also cause aspiration pneumonia, plus dehydration and nutritional challenges.3

Safe, nutritional mealtime options are critical. Food and beverage thickening agents are an essential ingredient on your loved one’s menu to prompt proper swallowing and intake of calories and nutrients.4 Foods can be thickened or thinned to individual requirements and many foods can be used to change a liquid to a different consistency. The amount of thickening agent needed to reach a certain food consistency varies depending on the food being thickened and on the thickening agent used.5 The Thick-It® brand provides dysphagia nutrition solutions that are easy to use and consume, including a complete line of thickeners, beverages, and purees.

It is important to create an inviting mealtime environment. When serving meals to a dysphagia patient, look for an environment of peace and quiet that is free from distractions. Serve the food on small plates as anything larger may intimidate your friend or loved one. Make sure fluids are always present and that they are the proper viscosity to aid swallowing and digestion.6

Feeding patients that can’t feed themselves. Always make sure your friend or loved one is sitting upright. Let them see and smell the food to help prompt the eating process. Put a small amount of food on the spoon and place food in the middle of the mouth on the front third of the tongue. Very gently push the tongue down as this stops the tongue from falling back and getting in the way of swallowing. Allow plenty of time for chewing and swallowing and make sure the mouth is empty before offering the next portion. The patient should remain upright for at least 20 minutes after eating to promote the digestive process.6

Remember that dysphagia is a very emotional issue. Dysphagia patients are often overwhelmed by a swallowing disorder diagnosis, thinking it to be untreatable and viewing mealtime with great anxiety. As a caregiver, it is important to be aware of the adverse effects of dysphagia on your friend or loved one’s self-esteem, socialization, and enjoyment of life. Patience is very important and a kind, encouraging word often goes a long way toward making the dysphagia patient feel more comfortable in eating situations.7

While receiving a dysphagia diagnosis is life changing, caring for a dysphagia patient presents its own unique and difficult challenges. Use these tips to start your swallowing disorder education and be sure to consult with your health care professionals, including speech pathologists and nutritionists, for questions related to the specific needs of your friend or loved one.

  1. “Increase Swallowing Disorder (Dysphagia) Research”. National Foundation of Swallowing Disorders. January 15, 2013.
  2. Mayo Clinic Family Health Book, 4th Edition. Mayo Clinic Staff. Vol. 4, 2009.
  3. D. G. Smithard, P. A. O’Neill, C. Park, J. Morris, R. Wyatt, R. England, and D. F. Martin, “Complications and outcome after acute stroke: does dysphagia matter?” Stroke, vol. 27, no. 7, pp. 1200–1204, 1996.
  4. Davies, S. (1999), Dysphagia in acute strokes. Nursing Standard; 13: 30, 49-55.
  5. Frank W. Jackson, M.D., “5 Levels for Difficulty In Swallowing Diet”, Dysphagia Diet, 2010.
  6. Cochrane review: Bath, P.M.W. et al (2003), “Interventions for Dysphagia in Acute Stroke”:
  7. Ekberg O, Hamdy S, Woisard V, Wuttge-Hannig A, Ortega P., “Social and psychological burden of dysphagia: its impact on diagnosis and treatment.” Department of Diagnostic Radiology, Malmö University Hospital, Sweden, 2002.

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