Food. It consumes so much of our day. Buying it, cooking it, consuming it — it’s an integral part of our everyday lives, both for nutrition and for a sense of community. But in our later years, eating isn’t always easy, and choking hazards for seniors are a real issue.
“To eat is a necessity, but to eat intelligently is an art.” –François de la Rochefoucauld
Sight, taste, muscles, and memory can all have an effect, so what’s always worked before suddenly needs creative tweaking.
For elderly grandparents, here’s one Kitchen Nightmare you should be looking out for.
Frontida Senior Living Communities such as the Adelaide Assisted Living and Memory Care Facility in Fond du Lac provide you with posts like this one to help you live your best life.
Meals turn scary when dinner goes down the wrong way and you can’t breathe.
It happens to all of us now and again, but as Grandma gets older, body changes can make choking much more common.
Choking Hazard #1. Her Spine
If her posture droops, so does her head. (Yet another reason to keep exercising.)
According to Dr. Felix Silverstone in the book Being Mortal, by Dr. Atul Gawande, as age and poor posture cause the spine to curve, the head tips forward. “So when you look straight ahead, it’s like looking up at the ceiling for anyone else.”
Try swallowing while looking straight up. It’s hard.
To counter? Dr. Silverstone says Grandma should carefully dip her chin down to swallow. And be sure she’s sitting up in a chair, not lounging back.
Choking Hazard #2. Her Pearly Whites
Is she missing teeth?
If her smile has gaps or her dentures fit poorly, she may not be able to chew well. And chewing is all-important in eating. Her food may be too large to swallow.
Keep regular visits to the dentist twice a year, and call asap if you notice a problem.
Choking Hazard #3. Her Dry Mouth
We need saliva to break down food. But if Grandma is dehydrated, her mouth will be parched.
Make sure she’s drinking enough water, and check her medications. Some of them may dry her out.
You can also blend extra liquid into her food, like mixing broth in her mashed potatoes.
Choking Hazard #4. Her Memory
Memory care is an important part of growing older. Without it, even simple tasks can become a challenge. If she struggles with dementia, her mind may forget how to chew or swallow. As respectfully as possible, gently remind her of each step.
You can also try softer foods like yogurts, gelatins, chopped meats, and soft scrambled eggs which slide down easier.
Note: If you’re tempted to switch to baby food, try eating it yourself first. (Um, yuck!) It’s a lot cheaper and tastier just to blitz her regular food in a baby grinder or food processor.
(By the way, if her confusion seems sudden with this or any other activity, check for a Urinary Tract Infection [UTI]. Those little buggers are sneaky and cause all sorts of odd symptoms, even falling.)
Choking Hazard #5. Her Food
Different foods have different textures. Different textures change how much food is chewed and how it goes down.
Foods like cereal — where you mix solids (which you chew) and liquids (which you don’t) — can confuse the situation, especially if Grandma has memory loss. If she likes cereal, try soaking it in milk till it’s soft, then pour any extra liquid off.
Tough foods need a lot of chewing. That’s hard to do if she tires easily. Cut meats, etc., into small pieces. Or throw them in that food processor to mince them down.
Small granules like rice? Those kernels travel any which way — even up. Next thing you know, they’re stuck in her nasal passages. Never a comfortable situation. Try cooking “sticky rice,” with extra water, so the grains bond together rather than floating separately. Or enjoy rice pudding. But if it’s still a problem, some seniors have opted to forgo rice altogether.
Choking Hazard #6. Her Throat
Some medical conditions actually shrink either the size of her esophagus or the sphincter that connects the esophagus to the stomach. That means food has less space to fit. Hence her choking.
Does she have acid reflux? Has she been intubated frequently? Did she have surgery on her esophagus? Any of these can create scar tissue, causing trouble in eating.
Ask her doctor if her esophagus or that sphincter needs stretching. It’s a fifteen-minute procedure (about two hours from start to recovery) that has helped many.
Helping Her Bite Off What She Can Chew
“We all eat, and it would be a sad waste of opportunity to eat badly.” (Anna Thomas)
Yes, Thomas’ quote probably refers to food quality, but eating “badly” could just as well mean the physical act of eating.
And nothing spoils the taste of food like the fear of choking on it.
So keep an eye out for some of these chokeholds with Grandma’s eating.
Worried about Grandma choking because she lives on her own? Or she’s alone throughout the day? Frontida Assisted Living Facilities provide a safe environment 24/7/365.
Trying to swallow food isn’t the only mealtime hazard.
Check out these other helpful posts to learn more about eating and dietary issues for seniors.
Elizabeth Daghfal is a writer, teacher, speaker, and community volunteer. When she isn't teaching or writing-- Who are we kidding? Her husband and five kids say she's ALWAYS teaching and writing. She has a passion to help people who are struggling and is happy to say her shoulders are drip-dry. Born and raised in the South, she now lives in Wisconsin and loves it--except for the fifteen months of winter. Read more about her at elizabethdaghfal.com.