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Soft Foods for Seniors With Swallowing Issues

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Easy to Swallow Foods for Elderly Individuals to Help Manage Dysphagia

Do you or a loved one have trouble swallowing? Have you or someone you love been diagnosed with dysphagia? 

Food or liquids may be difficult for some older adults to swallow. Dysphagia is a serious condition that could lead to malnutrition, dehydration, or aspiration pneumonia.  

Dysphagia is painful for the person suffering from it. Likewise, witnessing your loved one suffer from dysphagia can be upsetting. 

Luckily, there are many soft and safe food options to choose from that will make it easier to swallow.

This article will teach you: 

  • Safe food for elderly with swallowing difficulties

  • Why some foods may be difficult for seniors to swallow; and

  • Tips for seniors following a soft food diet

Table of Contents

How Common Is Dysphagia (Difficulty Swallowing) in Seniors?

Dysphagia refers to difficulty swallowing. This is when it takes a long time and effort to move food or liquid from the mouth to the stomach. Often it is painful, and in some cases, swallowing may not be possible.

Occasionally having trouble swallowing, such as when you eat too fast or do not chew your food well, is usually not a cause for concern. However, persistent dysphagia can be a serious medical condition that requires treatment.

Dysphagia is more common among the elderly than among the general population — about 15-22% of people 50 and older have dysphagia.

Signs and Symptoms of Dysphagia

Dysphagia can affect seniors for many reasons, and often, the following symptoms may occur:

  • Food and/or liquids are difficult to swallow

  • Dehydration

  • Pain when swallowing

  • Pressure in the chest

  • Frequent heartburn

  • Gagging, coughing, or choking when swallowing

  • A sensation of food getting stuck in the throat or chest 

  • Drooling

  • Hoarseness

  • Food coming back up (regurgitation)

  • Weight loss

Dysphagia symptoms can become more severe over time, and the severity may depend entirely on where the problem is occurring.

You should consult your health care provider if you or a loved one have difficulty swallowing regularly or if weight loss, regurgitation, or vomiting accompany the dysphagia.

3 Typical Reasons Foods May Be Difficult to Swallow for Seniors

Dysphagia is important to be aware of because it can cause serious health problems for seniors.  

Dysphagia has many causes, but let's look at three of the most common ones.

#1: Poorly Fitting Dentures or Oral Hygiene Issues

A faulty denture or teeth in poor condition can cause dysphagia in the elderly.

The prevention of tooth loss and the wear of well-fitting dentures when teeth cannot be saved can lead to a better swallowing function.

If dentures are worn improperly, tongue movements become altered, causing swallowing difficulties. In addition, food cannot be appropriately chewed and manipulated in your mouth if you do not have properly fitting dentures.

Oral hygiene is no different. You cannot chew and manipulate food properly if your teeth are not in good condition. 

Dental care plays a crucial role in maintaining and improving swallowing and overall health.

#2: Cognitive and Neuromuscular Disorders 

To swallow correctly and efficiently, five bodily systems must work together, and one of them is the neurological system. 

Dysphagia can occur in several neurological conditions, including: 

  • Stroke

  • Parkinson's disease

  • Dementia

  • Multiple sclerosis

Dysphagia can also be seen in neuromuscular disorders, such as: 

  • Dystrophies

  • Inflammatory myopathy

  • Mitochondrial myopathy

  • Myasthenia gravis

  • Motor neuron diseases; and

  • Peripheral neuropathy

If the brain is not functioning correctly, or if trauma occurs in specific areas of the brain, it can negatively impact the body's ability to swallow.

#3: Stroke

Those who have had a stroke may have difficulty swallowing. 

During swallowing, your brain coordinates many different muscles. If a stroke affects the parts of your brain that control swallowing, then swallowing will be affected.

Also, a stroke can cause your esophagus' nerves and muscles to stop working correctly. The esophagus extends from your mouth and throat down to your stomach, so a stroke can cause food to move slowly or even become stuck in the esophagus.

Senior man eating soup with wife

What Are the Best Soft Foods for Seniors With Swallowing Issues by Food Group? 

The soft diet includes foods that a person has mashed or blended into a soft texture. 

It is possible to eat all the major food groups on a soft diet. Therefore, it can be as nutrient-dense as any other diet.

You will need to prepare easy-to-swallow foods that provide a senior with dysphagia with a balanced diet rich in the daily calories and nutrition that their bodies need.

These foods should represent several of the food groups. Below are some dietary suggestions, broken down by food group.

Dairy Products

Dairy products are generally safe and easy to swallow as part of a soft diet. 

Acceptable Items include: 

  • Yogurt

  • Custard

  • Pudding

  • Cottage cheese (small-sized curds)

  • Cream cheese; and

  • Ricotta

Cheese is an excellent source of calories for an underweight senior and can be added as a sauce to many dishes, rather than hard pieces like cheese cubes or slices.

While there are several dairy options to choose from, there are some you should avoid. 

A few of these include: 

  • Yogurt with large fruit chunks or granola

  • Eggs that are hard and fried

  • Cheese cubes or any type of hard cheese

  • Stringy, crisp cheese topping (for instance, on top of casseroles)

Fruits

Unfortunately, most fruits can't be swallowed by seniors with dysphagia, so creative solutions must be found. 

Give your loved one a smoothie that contains various fruits they enjoy, very finely blended. 

Ripe bananas can be eaten as is, and other safe options are: 

  • Applesauce

  • Baked apples

  • Cooked pears

  • Ripe kiwi; and

  • Chopped grapes 

If you or your loved one can tolerate thin liquids, provide 100% fruit juice or nectar.  

Among the fruits you should avoid are: 

  • Pineapple 

  • Dried Fruits

  • Fruits in jellied desserts

  • Fruits with hard seeds (such as raspberries and blackberries)

Vegetables

A healthy diet should include plenty of vegetables, so get creative with incorporating them.

Green smoothies are a great way to consume more vegetables. To make them sweeter, add agave syrup or some honey. 

Some other safe options include: 

  • Vegetables cooked in soft, diced form (such as carrots and squash)

  • Vegetables (such as peas and spinach) mashed together

  • Minced vegetables (such as broccoli and green beans)

  • Finely shredded salads

  • Mashed potatoes

  • Sweet corn canned in cream

 Below are examples of unsafe options: 

  • French fries or hash browns that are crisp and dry

  • Vegetables with a “stringy” texture (such as celery or string beans)

  • Whole kernel corn, even in soup

  • Raw, hard vegetables (such as broccoli and carrot sticks)

Grains

Grains are rich in nutrients and fiber and contribute to a healthy diet.

Listed below are a few options for safe grain consumption: 

  • Hot cereals (such as oatmeal or oat bran)

  • Cereals that soften in milk

  • Soft, moist bread products (such as biscuits and muffins) served with butter or another spread

  • Waffles or pancakes drizzled with applesauce or syrup

  • Pasta with sauce

  • Soft cereal bars

Grain options that are unsafe include: 

  • Rice that is dry and loose

  • Breads that are dry or chewy (such as bagels and English muffins)

  • Cereals with dried fruit or chocolate chips

  • Coarse cereals which do not soften in milk

  • Crisp cereal bars

  • Dry pizza crust (such as thin-crust pizza)

How to Prepare Soft Foods for Seniors With Swallowing Issues

The foods mentioned above are already soft, but others will need to be softened.

If you need to add more moisture to your foods, you can use:

  • Broth

  • Melted butter

  • Soft margarine

  • Gravy

  • Sauces

  • Milk; or

  • Juice 

The food that is not soft or moist enough needs to be: 

  • Diced

  • Minced

  • Finely shaved; or

  • Mashed

To soften specific foods, you follow these tips: 

  • Cook foods so that they are moist and easily swallowed

  • Mash vegetables like potatoes or squash, using milk or cream

  • Moisten meat or poultry with gravy or broth

  • Cheese sauce can be used to moisten vegetables or rice

  • Vegetables should be steamed and skins removed before serving

Remember that "soft foods" are different from "pureed foods." Pureed foods are not always advisable for seniors who have difficulty swallowing.

Tips for Seniors When Following a Soft Foods Diet  

Along with eating a soft diet, there are a few other things a senior can do, including:

  • When eating, sit upright and stay upright for 30-60 minutes after eating

  • Take small bites

  • Don’t rush during mealtime — chew food well and take your time

  • Eating small, frequent meals and snacks

  • Ensure your diet contains a variety of flavors by using herbs and spices

  • Softer food loses heat more quickly — ensure that the food is very hot when serving

  • Avoid baby foods as they have poor nutritional value for adults

  • Drink a couple of sips of your beverage if food ever feels stuck in your throat. Drinking will help move the food along.

Senior Services of America: Helping Maintain Quality of Life in Our Communities

In Senior Services of America communities, residents are encouraged to remain as independent as possible and live meaningful and purposeful lives.

Our goal is to help residents stay mentally, physically, and emotionally engaged in life.

Our residents are offered a positive environment that inspires and motivates them to achieve their full potential.

It is the mission of Senior Services of America to provide you with support as you move into this next phase of your life. 

Would you like any further information? Are you curious if your local Senior Services of America community provides dysphagia management services?

Find your nearest community to speak with an advisor.

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Senior Services of America

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