Dysphagia or swallowing difficulties can make mealtime hard for the elderly, especially when compounded by the struggles that some seniors have with chewing and swallowing solid foods. In these cases, a pureed diet may be best for them.
If you want to begin making pureed meals for your senior loved one, how do you do it? You have many options for pureeing food for the dysphagic elderly, including using a food processor or blender. You can also blend with a food mill, a mortar and pestle, and even a kitchen fork. The types of food you puree will determine how difficult the process is, if you do it by hand.
This guide will first explain what dysphagia is. Then we’ll delve more into the above pureeing methods and talk about which foods dysphagic seniors should eat and which they should avoid. Make sure you keep reading, as there’s lots of great info to come.
Table of Contents
What Is Dysphagia?
Let’s begin by talking further about dysphagia. This is a health issue that prevents a person from easily swallowing.
If a senior has difficulty swallowing only occasionally, this likely isn’t dysphagia. Anyone can get this from time to time, most likely as a result of not chewing food well or trying to chew too much food at one time.
With true dysphagia, the senior regularly chokes on their food and may even choke on liquids. They may lose weight due to their inability to swallow regular foods. Dysphagia patients may even choke so much that they vomit when eating.
What Causes Dysphagia?
According to the Mayo Clinic, “Certain disorders — such as multiple sclerosis, muscular dystrophy and Parkinson’s disease — can cause dysphagia.
In addition, dysphagia can be the result of health conditions, such as stroke or brain injury, or other medical conditions, like:
- eosinophilic esophagitis (related to food allergies)
- gastroesophageal reflux disease or GERD
- throat cancer
- achalasia. (the lower sphincter muscle doesn’t let food go into the stomach)
- esophageal cancer and tumors
- radiation therapy and scarring
A person’s age seems to play a role in the rate of dysphagia as well, with elderly people being likelier to have this condition.
That said, dysphagia can affect a person of any age group. My cousin went through a bout of swallowing difficulty when he was in his early 50s (he has since recovered).
The Symptoms Of Dysphagia
Besides having a hard time swallowing, a senior with dysphagia will experience other symptoms.
They include the following:
- Gagging and/or coughing when they try to swallow
- Weight loss due to an inability to eat
- Rising stomach acid or food that settles in the throat
- Regurgitating food
- Hoarse throat
- Feeling like food is stuck in the sternum, chest, or throat even when it isn’t
- Painful swallowing
Is Dysphagia Curable?
Dysphagia is usually categorized in one of three ways:
- esophageal dysphagia
- oropharyngeal dysphagia
- severe dysphagia
Depending on the cause, the condition can be cured or at least maintained.
Modifying a dysphagic senior’s diet is usually the first course of action a doctor or healthcare provider will recommend. The senior should be eating soft, healthy foods that can be pureed and easily swallowed.
Some medications might be able to help with dysphagia, but this usually happens if the condition is caused by GERD rather than a medical condition or old age.
A senior can also learn exercises or swallowing techniques that might make swallowing easier. For example, a speech pathologist can the senior on how to put food in their mouth properly and how to angle their head to aid in swallowing.
These treatments are best for the elderly, as well as for those with Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s disease and have dysphagia due to these conditions.
What To Use To Puree Foods For The Elderly
At the recommendation of the senior’s doctor, family caregivers may decide to create a puréed diet. (A pureed diet may also be helpful for seniors who have no teeth.)
Per the intro, here are some pureeing methods. We’ve basically listed them starting from the easiest way and moving down to the most difficult method.
Many adult children or caretakers with a dysphagic senior in their care will use an appliance such as a food processor to create puréed foods.
The food processor has chopping blades of different sizes and thicknesses. They can break down ingredients into a liquid form at the touch of a button, making this a good way to ensure the resulting foods have a smooth texture and no small pieces are left when you’re done.
If you don’t have a food processor, then a blender is another useful tool for making a pureed dish. Just like with a food processor, using a blender is pretty automatic. You pour in the ingredients, put the lid of the blender on, turn on the machine, and watch as the foods are churned into a thinner consistency.
We always recommend at least one manual pureeing option in case you lose power, or your food processor or blender is on the fritz. If anything happens, you will still be able to puree food, but it will require more manual effort (this model is ergonomically designed, though).
A food mill features a hand crank. To make your task easier, first boil the food you want to blend so it’s naturally softer. Then you’ll feed it through the crank.
You can select from variously sized stainless steel dicing and slicing discs, similar to the ones a food processor has.
When you turn crank, the boiled food goes through the discs, gets mashed, and comes out into a bowl.
Mortar And Pestle
If you’re only pureeing a small quantity of food and you have the time (and energy), you can use a mortar and pestle for pureeing your dysphagic senior’s food.
Do you have a potato masher handy? By boiling harder foods first, you can go to town pureeing and mashing the food using a handy potato masher. This might be less strenuous compared to working with a food mill or a mortar and pestle.
With A Fork Or Chopsticks
At the very least, boiled food breaks down easily enough with a common kitchen fork or chopsticks. You simply poke at the food, over and over, until you puree it.
This is definitely the most time-consuming method but it works in a pinch! Just remember to make the food into a smooth, pudding-like consistency. Any remaining coarse textures will increase the risk of choking.
What To Eat When Swallowing Is Difficult
Having an instrument or appliance to puree food is handy, but exactly what kinds of foods should you puree for the dysphagic elderly? Here is what we recommend.
If the fruit is soft, mashable, and ripe, then it’s suitable for your dysphagic senior. The fruit can be frozen, canned, or fresh; that’s up to you.
You must remove hard parts of the fruits you select, including membranes, skins, and seeds. Then you can make puréed fruit from:
- Mandarin oranges
- Ripe mango
From creamed corn to mashed potatoes and sweet potatoes, shredded leafy greens (like lettuce or kale), spinach, peas, green beans, ripe avocados and squash, the dysphagic senior in your life can still get their greens.
Many of the above vegetables must be boiled so they’re nice and soft before you puree them. As with fruit, you can select fresh veggies or buy frozen or canned greens.
Soup is about as easy to swallow as it gets, as it’s a liquid. Supervise your dysphagic senior when they consume soup to ensure they’re not swallowing down too much at once. That can be a choking hazard.
The soup you select can be flavorful but should not have chunks of meat or vegetables. These foods will be too hard for your senior to chew.
Oats can control blood sugar, lower cholesterol, and potentially reduce one’s risk of heart disease as well. When cooked into creamy, soft oatmeal, your senior can reap the above health benefits.
High-Protein Pureed Food For The Elderly
One risk you must be aware of when you puree food for the dysphagic elderly is that nutritional deficiencies could potentially develop.
Your senior was once able to select a well-rounded, balanced diet of hard and soft foods. Now they’re limited to soft foods.
Eating nothing but fruits and vegetables can leave a senior nutritionally deficient. They’re lacking protein in their diet.
Here are some pureed foods that contain protein that should be incorporated into the above dysphagic diet plan.
One container or 170 grams of nonfat, plain Greek yogurt contains a whopping 17 grams of protein. Other styles of yogurt are smoother, and while their protein content is lower, are still a sufficient source of protein.
When shopping for yogurt, you don’t have to stick to plain varieties only. However, the yogurt should have no seeds or skins of fruit, such as in strawberry or raspberry yogurt.
Also avoid the kind of yogurts with mix-ins as well (older people on a soft food diet likely can, but a senior with dysphagia cannot).
You can add protein to smoothies in many ways, such as by including oats, flax seeds, or peanut butter. Unfortunately, most of those options are going to be too difficult for a dysphagic senior to swallow.
Coconut milk is one source of protein that works well in a smoothie for the dysphagic elderly.
You can also buy protein smoothies at the grocery store. Just double-check that the stuff isn’t too chalky or powdery before offering it to your senior.
Meat is among the richest source of protein, containing 22 grams in a three-ounce or 85-gram serving.
Pureeing meat entails cooking it first, then slicing it into very thin pieces. You want an average thickness of an inch per piece of meat. Then you can run the meat through a blender or food processor.
It will take on a sand-like consistency. Make the meat puree easier to swallow by pouring in a half-cup of meat broth. The broth will enhance the flavor of the pureed food as well.
If your dysphagic senior can chew decently enough, you can feed them scrambled eggs. One large egg has six grams of protein, so cook up two or three for a protein-filled breakfast, side, or light snack.
Even if you don’t like your scrambled eggs runnier, that’s a better consistency for your senior. That said, make sure the eggs are fully cooked before serving!
I know, this is not very appealing, but it’s a choice in a pinch!
Since baby food is bland, you can add seasoning to it to make it more appealing, but I recommend using only powered spices. Coarsely ground spices can lead to choking in someone with dysphagia.
Premade Pureed Food Delivery
For older adults who can’t cook, may have a difficult time with meal prep, or whose taste buds just want a change of foods, you can get premade pureed foods delivered right to your doorstep!
Mom’s Meals features full meals for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
They have menu items like BBQ pork sandwiches, turkey with stuffing, enchiladas, french toast, tuna noodle casserole.
Their meals are not as expensive as typical home-delivery services and they work with several senior programs. “We serve clients who are covered under Medicare Advantage plans, Medicaid plans, Long-Term Services and Supports (LTSS) programs or the Older Americans Act, and by individuals or their caregivers who are looking for a self-pay program.”
What Foods Should You Avoid With Dysphagia?
Unfortunately, the list of foods that dysphagic seniors cannot eat is a lot longer than the ones they can. Here are the foods that you should not attempt to feed your senior.
- Lunch meats with hard casings
- Crispy poultry, meat, or fish
- Hard-fried eggs
- Seeds and nuts
- Dried fruit
- Dry cereal
- Dry pizza crust
- Chewy cereal bars
- Loose rice
- Chewy bread, including tortillas, pitas, English muffins, and bagels
- Hard-seeded fruits
- Fruit skins
- Whole-kernel corn
- Potato skins, including hash browns and French fries
- Hard vegetables such as celery, cauliflower, and carrots
What Helps Food Go Down The Esophagus?
Have you ever wondered how food travels down your esophagus? It starts with the saliva in your mouth that’s produced via salivary glands.
The saliva makes food soft and moist so you can swallow it (usually without difficulty). The food will go down your throat to your esophagus and then reach your stomach. The latter part of the process occurs through peristalsis, an automatic muscle contraction that moves food along.
Interestingly, besides only wetting food, saliva also contains enzymes that can process the starches in food, triggering digestion!
You can puree food for the dysphagic elderly using a food processor, blender, food mill, fork, chopsticks, or a mortar and pestle. Be sure to select foods that are part of a nutritious diet.
Include fruits, vegetables, and protein sources such as pureed meats, eggs, and yogurt. Avoid hard and dry foods, as these will pose a swallowing challenge and thus a choking hazard to a senior with dysphagia.