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Dining with Dignity: Supporting Loved Ones with Dysphagia During Mealtimes

Two women share a meal together, one with dysphagia-modified foods and the other without.

Guest Author: Susan Norris, regional sales manager for the Personal Nutrition Solutions (PNS) division of Kent Precision Foods Group, Inc.

For those with dysphagia, mealtimes can be stressful and complicated. Many individuals with swallowing difficulties must follow a modified diet of thickened foods and liquids as prescribed by a healthcare professional such as a speech-language pathologist. The level of modification varies depending on the type and severity of the dysphagia diagnosis; however, these changes are often necessary to minimize the risk of negative outcomes like aspiration.

Patients with dysphagia are often self-conscious of their condition while eating and can become embarrassed and angry, especially in public dining situations. Educating patients on what they can eat and offering easy-to-prepare options can help instill a feeling of safety and self-directed care, which promotes confidence while reducing feelings of helplessness and isolation.

For many families, one of their biggest concerns is how to incorporate and prepare a modified diet for their loved ones with dysphagia. I have listened to many caretakers describe food shopping and meal preparation as a confusing and time-consuming process. Many fear the possibility of preparing meals and beverages that could cause harm and suffering.

To help master mealtime, I suggest starting with purées. Thick-It® Purées make it possible for those with dysphagia to enjoy healthy meals at home without the hassle and stress of cooking and preparing foods to the correct consistency. These purées are crafted to meet the guidelines for a texture modified diet.

Beyond learning how to prepare modified foods, patients with swallowing difficulties also miss the meals they used to regularly enjoy. With a little creativity, making your loved one’s favorite dishes is still possible. The Thick-It® brand’s Variety Comes to the Table downloadable recipe book is full of satisfying and delicious ways to prepare dysphagia-safe foods in compliance with IDDSI standards.

Having dysphagia can also make it difficult to eat out at a restaurant or another person’s home; however, this shouldn’t keep you from doing so. Mealtimes are essential for social interaction with family and friends; therefore, it’s important to avoid isolating yourself or a loved one. This may require families and/or caregivers to bring modified foods to meals outside of the home so their loved one is comfortable and feels included in the dining experience. Some additional tips for dining out include:

  1. Avoid making your loved one feel like it is a hassle to go out to eat. They should not feel guilty about their condition that is beyond their control.
  2. Allow your loved one to participate in the selection of where to eat to build self-esteem.
  3. Look at restaurant menus ahead of time to ensure they offer suitable foods and a variety of appealing options.
  4. Plan ahead for social gatherings and dining out to eliminate stress for both parties and to make the occasion as normal as possible.
  5. Prepare thickened liquids ahead of time with a stable thickener, such as Thick-It® Food & Beverage Thickeners, or pack pre-thickened liquids, like Thick-It® Clear Advantage® Ready-to-Drink Beverages, to avoid mixing at the table.
  6. Hold off on conversation until after food and drink have been swallowed to avoid aspiration or choking.
  7. Be patient, and provide your loved one with ample time to eat regardless of where others are in the process. Rushing is an invitation for aspiration or choking.[i]

Dysphagia patients with cognitive limitations require additional support and intervention during mealtimes. Motor, sensory, cognitive, emotional, or behavioral challenges can impact a person’s ability to anticipate, prepare for, and engage during mealtime. Some difficulties include initiating eating, maintaining attention, recognizing and using food cutlery, and self-feeding. Inappropriate or lack of support to eat and drink increases the risk of aspiration.

Ensuring comfort during mealtimes is important for dysphagia patients to feel independent and in control of their diet. Caregivers can help by educating their dysphagia patients on safe food options and the IDDSI framework for modifying foods. Once your loved one is confident and comfortable with modified foods, they will feel more empowered to dine with dignity.

Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have about the use of Thick-It® products. The information contained herein is general and is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment in any manner.

[i] Bradley, Jennifer, “Social Aspects of Dysphagia,” Today’s Caregiver, May 9, 2017.

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