Staying well-nourished and hydrated is critical to maintaining physical health. But mealtime plays a crucial role in a person’s mental health and quality of life, too. Here are several strategies for ensuring that mealtime is safe and enjoyable for your patients with dysphagia as well as their caregivers and loved ones.
Before the Meal
Make sure caregivers fully understand and comply with the mealtime support plan you’ve developed for the patient, and remind them to follow the directions for the food and beverage thickeners that you recommend. If the patient is able and interested, encourage caregivers to include the person in meal planning, shopping, and preparation. This allows them to anticipate the meal and ensure that they will enjoy what they eat. Advise caregivers to allow cooking aromas to fill the dining area to stimulate the appetite.
Providing a calm and homey atmosphere can reduce anxiety and allow the patient to better enjoy their meals and interact with family. Suggest that meals be served in a warm, well-lit, and inviting dining area without glare or shadows. Caregivers should limit noise and distractions from a television, radio, or boisterous visitors so the patient can concentrate on consuming their meal. A sturdy chair should be provided to allow the patient to sit upright with their feet comfortably on the floor.
At the Table
Eating and drinking too quickly can increase the risk of aspiration. Have the caregiver encourage the patient to eat slowly by using smaller utensils. To ensure the food stays hot and appetizing, caregivers may want to begin by serving half of the meal then offering a second helping. To support the patient’s sense of independence, recommend the use of adaptive utensils, dishware, and accessories allowing the patient to feed himself.
If the patient needs assistance in eating and drinking, advise the caregiver to sit at the patient’s level—don’t stand. Depending on the patient’s communication abilities, the caregiver should communicate what they are doing at each stage of the meal: “Here are some peas,” “How about a bite of potatoes?” Ask the patient to indicate when they’re ready for another bite. And encourage them to be relaxed and engage in conversation. Meals are a time to connect with loved ones.
After the Meal
The patient should be encouraged to clear their mouth of all food. To assist, the caregiver may offer a final drink to help the patient swallow any remaining food. The patient should then sit or stand upright for 30 minutes after eating to avoid the possibility of reflux. If the patient is able, invite them to help with post-meal clean-up. This allows them to fully participate in their family’s mealtime routine.
Following these steps can help your patients and their caregivers safely enjoy meals together and provide much-needed interaction and a sense of normalcy for families challenged by a swallowing disorder.