What you should know about Aspiration Pneumonia and Dysphagia in the elderly
Dysphagia means difficulty swallowing foods or liquids. Inevitably, this can be caused by throat muscles weakening.
Those with Alzheimer’s or dementia may no longer understand how to swallow and what the word swallow means. If your loved one has a history of strokes, these muscles have already been weakened, usually either on the right or the left side of the throat, depending on which side of the body the stroke affected.
If they are pocketing food, meaning holding it in their cheeks and not swallowing it, or coughing when they do eat, this is an indication of dysphagia. If they are taking longer than 10 seconds to swallow, it is also a clear indicator of dysphagia.
This weakening of the throat muscles can also happen with old age. If they are in the hospital, this is when a Swallow Evaluation is ordered. The doctor may write an order to change their diet. Different diets may be prescribed for easier swallowing.
You may first have to cut the food up into either finely chopped or into small pieces, and you may need to add gravy or sauces so that the food will be made smoother as it is swallowed. Check with the doctor.
If they are still coughing and having a hard time swallowing their finely chopped food with or without sauces, the next step the doctor will probably order is a pureed diet. Essentially, this diet is like baby food.
You create it by putting food into a blender then serving it in liquid form. You can put whatever they usually wanted to eat in the blender and serve it to them. For example, I have seen pizza, steak, lasagna, and any other favorite food that someone likes, placed in the blender. It may or may not taste the same, but the sensation of chewing or crunching is lost.
While this pureed diet can be tolerated the best with severe dysphagia, not everyone likes food that way. They may refuse to take their food in this pureed form and complain they don’t want baby food.
A complication called respiratory aspiration occurs when the food goes into the lungs (goes down the wrong pipe). Coughing or choking when swallowing food or fluids can lead to a potential infection called aspiration pneumonia.
When the aspiration pneumonia and dysphagia in the elderly aspiration worsens, they may need antibiotics. If they refuse or decline the antibiotics, aspiration pneumonia may cause their death. This is why it is very important to learn all about helping to prevent aspiration pneumonia.