Swallowing Problems in Seniors

Swallowing Problems In Seniors

Swallowing Problems In Seniors

The majority of people don’t think twice about swallowing when they eat or drink. However, some seniors suffer from swallowing problems, which often cause severe health consequences and a lower quality of life. 

Swallowing is a complicated bodily process that begins when you first look at food, which prompts your salivary glands to start producing saliva. When your food or beverage reaches the soft palate in the rear of the mouth, it triggers the involuntary reflex known as swallowing.



Difficulty swallowing, or dysphagia, is a significant health concern because it can lead to malnutrition, dehydration, or a host of other problems.

Swallowing problems can make mealtimes nerve-wracking and challenging for elders and their caregivers.

This condition can occur to anyone no matter their age, but seniors are naturally predisposed due to comorbid ailments. About 15% of older adults and 68% of those in nursing homes suffer from dysphagia. 

Consequences Of Swallowing Problems

Health care providers and caregivers must address swallowing problems in seniors since dysphagia can lead to these health problems if neglected: 

  • Malnutrition
  • Dehydration
  • Appetite loss
  • Weight loss
  • Receiving medication incorrectly
  • Aspiration pneumonia, an infection that occurs when food or fluid particles become stuck in the lungs.

Signs of Dysphagia

There is a difference between occasionally having difficulty swallowing and dysphagia. If swallowing problems are a common occurrence, you should talk to your loved one’s physician right away.

Signs of dysphagia include:

  • Coughing while drinking or eating
  • Choking on liquids, medication, or food
  • A “gurgly” voice, particularly after meals or drinking
  • Trouble swallowing food and liquids
  • Drooling

gerbil-wheel-caregiver-nurse-helping-feed-a-patientOf course, not everyone can eat with an aging loved one. If you are a long-distance caregiver or just live across town, you can ask your loved one these questions to determine if you should take action:

  • Do you frequently cough or choke after a meal or drink?
  • Does your food often feel like it’s going down the “wrong tube” or the “wrong way”?
  • Does it feel like your food frequently gets stuck in your throat?
  • How much time do you usually take to eat?
  • Do you feel like eating is less enjoyable at times?
  • Have you lost weight without meaning to?

Causes Of Dysphagia


Because a variety of things can cause dysphagia, you should take your loved one to the doctor to assess any swallowing problems. Some of the most common causes of dysphagia include:

  • Incorrectly sized dentures or poor oral health
  • Degeneration of the mouth and throat muscles, which often happens with age 
  • Acid reflux
  • Stroke
  • Alzheimer’s, dementia, or other cognitive disorder
  • Mouth, throat, or esophageal cancers
  • Medication

Other Causes of Swallowing Problems

Sometimes, elders may have swallowing problems because their salivary glands are not producing enough saliva, or they have dry mouth. Several things can disrupt normal saliva production: 

  • Medication: There are more than 400 medications that lower saliva production or change its chemical makeup, so it becomes less effective. Anti-depressants, hypertension, incontinence, and allergy medications often have side effects that can impair salivary glands.
  • Diabetes and Parkinson’s: These diseases can cause dry mouth, and Parkinson’s can cause muscles used for chewing and swallowing to weaken.  
  • Cancer treatment: Radiation and other cancer treatments for the head or neck can block or completely stop saliva production. Chemotherapy can cause saliva to thicken, which causes the mouth to feel sticky or dry.
  • Injuries to the head or neck resulting in damage to the nerves that regulate salivary production

How Caregivers Can Help Seniors with Swallowing Problems

Watching your loved one struggle with swallowing problems is heartbreaking. Here are some ideas that can help them with eating and drinking.

  • oatmeal-with-berries-a-safe-food-for-seniors-with-swallowing-problemsChoose soft, moist foods that are easy to swallow, such as oatmeal, soup, tuna salad, or noodle casseroles. Additionally, canned fruits contain lots of water and can help with hydration.
  • Stay away from crumbly foods, like crackers, since they can cause choking or gagging. If dry foods are the only option, use non-spicy sauces to soften them.
  • Similarly, avoid grainy foods like rice, and opt for something like mashed potatoes instead.
  • Avoid spicy and salty foods since they can exasperate dry mouth by irritating the tissues and absorbing moisture.
  • Steam vegetables instead of serving them uncooked. You can easily flavor steamed vegetables with spices or pasta sauce.
  • Select softer deserts, such as Jello or a yogurt-based smoothie. If your loved one wants cookies, make sure they soften them in milk or tea first.
  • Puree food for seniors with particularly dry mouths. 
  • Encourage your loved one to chew sugar-free gum or suck on sugar-free candy between meals to promote saliva production.
  • Make sure your loved one drinks 8 cups of water every day. Swallowing problems often make it difficult for elders to notice thirst, making it easy to become dehydrated. Dehydration also impedes saliva production.

Family members and caregivers must address swallowing problems in seniors. If you notice your loved one has difficulty eating or drinking because of dysphagia, talk to their physician as soon as possible.


If your loved one has swallowing problems, a qualified caregiver from Meetcaregviers can assist during meals to ensure they receive the nutrition they need. 

We can match your loved one to the perfect in-home care worker. Just call 1-888-541-1136, or contact us online. 

For more resources for seniors and caregivers, visit the Blog.

  • “Caregiver Solutions: Managing Swallowing Problems.” How Caregiver’s Can Find Solutions for Managing Swallowing Problems, www.parentgiving.com/elder-care/caregiver-solutions-managing-swallowing-problems/.
  • DailyCaring Editorial Team. “Why Do Seniors Have Trouble Swallowing?” DailyCaring, 17 Sept. 2019, dailycaring.com/why-do-seniors-have-trouble-swallowing/#:~:text=Swallowing problems are more common,both you and your senior.

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