The word aspiration describes a condition where a person accidentally sucks fluids or a foreign body into their airway as they are taking a breath. People can aspirate on small pieces of food, a sip of water or even their own saliva.
For certain older adults, such as those with chronic diseases or those who have experienced a stroke, the risk for aspiration is quite serious and can result in pneumonia and death. Caregivers should monitor for symptoms of aspiration and can take simple steps to help prevent aspiration from occurring.
Most important to preventing aspiration is the position of the person when they are eating. Sitting upright in the chair, not reclined and not in bed, is the best and safest position for eating. If needed, the person should be supported on each side to be certain they do not lean to the side or fall forward when eating.
Making sure the food is the right size and consistency is also important. People in weakened states should be served food that is soft or cut up into bite-sized pieces. Finger foods or sandwiches with ground meat, such as ham salad or chicken salad, are also easier for some people to swallow. Thin fluids are often more easy to choke on than thicker liquids, an important fact to be aware of when preparing meals.
Mealtime is a social time, but laughing and talking during mealtime can contribute to aspiration. Avoid asking questions during mealtime and reserve jokes for after eating is concluded.
If you notice that the person you care for coughs during meals when eating or drinking, this is a red flag and should be reported. A speech therapist can conduct testing to determine if the person is aspirating and make recommendations for modifying the diet or fluid consistency. Assistive drinking cups and utensils may also be helpful.
This caregiver tip is provided by the staff of the UAMS Schmieding Home Caregiver Training Program, your source for information and training on caregiving in Arkansas. For more information on assisting with mealtime or preventing aspiration in the older adult population, consider attending a caregiver program in your area.
Information on classes and dates can be found on our website at uamscaregiving.org
Wishing you a very Happy Holiday season!