Now That’s Hard to Swallow!

Now That’s Hard to Swallow!

image of female and female senior seated

One minute you’re in the backyard visiting with your neighbors over a picnic meal, and before you know it, a delicately prepared bite of steak has become stuck in your throat.  As you’re coughing, sweating, and panicking, it’s Heimlich’s miraculous maneuver to the rescue! If you’re fortunate, the maneuver works as intended, with no harm or foul, but choking can have more detrimental effects. The National Safety Council reported that in 2020, 3,000 choking deaths occurred, and nearly half of the victims were over age 74. Many things change with age, including the ability to swallow easily.

Because it’s Heimlich Maneuver Day, we also want to highlight a possible choking preventative: speech therapy. Unfortunately, speech therapy isn’t given proper credit. When many think of it, grade school may come to mind when it helps youngsters pronounce their /r/s correctly, but it’s far more than linguistics. Did you know it can also help with swallowing?

The same structures involved in speech and voice production are also part of the swallow mechanism. When muscles become deconditioned and weak, the risk of aspiration increases. Aspiration is when food or liquids enters the lungs. Aside from discomfort and a choking sensation, pneumonia can also be a severe complication of aspirating foods and beverages.

Signs of a Swallowing Impairment

Swallow studies are ordered by a medical doctor and completed in a hospital or clinic. During the study, participants may be asked to swallow various liquids. This can help to determine if there are significant problems with the muscles in their throat that contribute to swallowing. Participants may also undergo a scope evaluation that can show physicians the inside of the throat to find areas of weakness or structural deficiencies. After the assessment, doctors may recommend dietary changes such as thickened liquids, speech therapy, or surgical procedures to address the problem. If you or someone you love shows signs of swallowing impairment, seeking a medical evaluation promptly may help reduce the risk of unwanted complications like choking.

Additional Tips to Prevent Choking:

  • Eat appropriately sized food (cut into bite sizes)
  • Don’t speak or laugh while eating
  • Chew food carefully/adequately
  • Allow enough time for meals (avoid rushing the process)
  • Ensure dentures are properly fitted to reduce gaging
  • Provide water or a beverage to help wash the meal down safely

Dementia & Increased Choking Risks

Memory loss can cause someone to forget to chew at all or adequately before they swallow, leading to significant choking and aspiration problems. While a speech therapy evaluation to learn best practices for mealtime is ideal, check out the tips above and below to increase safety at mealtime for those suffering from dementia:

  • Calm, verbal reminders to chew and swallow
  • Comfortable, distraction-free environment
  • Supervision during the meal

If you’re seeking outpatient speech therapy or memory care services for your loved one, contact us at We offer a variety of support, such as adult day services and memory care, and many of our communities also offer on-site outpatient speech therapy services provided by CaringEdge to help.