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Supporting mealtimes

By Claire Pitcher

Mealtimes can be an important time for many throughout their day and week, and often we think the basics of chewing and swallowing are simple. However, those living with a disability or who have changes in their physiology can find mealtimes unenjoyable, stressful and it can be a risk to their health and well-being.

Speech pathologist frequently support individuals living with swallowing difficulties known as dysphagia. Risks associated with dysphagia include food, liquids or other materials entering the airway. Swallowing difficulties can look different between individuals and can include challenges with sucking, drooling, chewing food into manageable sizes and engaging a swallow for the food to travel down to the stomach. These challenges can cause embarrassment, choking hazards, coughing and aspiration (entering the airway or lungs) which, if left unsupported could impact health and lead to hospitalisation or death.

Tips to help individuals with dysphagia eat and drink safely

1. Seek support from a speech pathologist! Speech pathologists are trained to complete mealtime assessments and identify appropriate recommendations for an individual to eat and drink as safely as possible to enjoy their meals.

2. Positioning – sitting at 90 degrees at a table, or upright in a wheelchair or bed is desired to support a safe swallow.

3. Food consistency – ensuring the foods an individual is eating and liquids they are drinking are of the texture or consistency that is safest for them. Speech pathologists have access to thickening agents for liquids to prevent it entering the airway.

4. Reducing distractions – focusing on food or drink and completing a swallow is important for an individual with dysphagia, reducing distractions such as television, discussions and music can be helpful in mealtime management.

5. Supervision – if you have concerns for yourself or an individual with dysphagia, being supervised is important. This can ensure appropriate notes are taken if things are happening, supports can identify if an individual is requiring help or choking and act accordingly.

About the author

Claire Pitcher is a dedicated Team Leader and senior Speech Pathologist at KEO Care. Claire completed her degree in speech pathology after being exposed to the disability field and acquired disorders in her family and work life. As a speech pathologist, Claire’s passions lie within the community space to support those living with a disability to flourish in the environments they access throughout their day-to-day activities. She thoroughly enjoys supporting individuals across the lifespan with dysphagia management, and expressive and receptive language alongside augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) means.

Beyond her clinical role, Claire shares her enthusiasm and knowledge about the field with up-and-coming clinicians during their clinical rotations.