My Dad’s a Goldfish – to swallow or not to swallow?

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After the Goldfish started attending the new sensory day centre I attended several training sessions for carers. These included how to deal with dental hygiene, problems with swallowing and loss of appetite. The latter has never been a problem for the Goldfish, whose appetite remains, mostly, undiminished.

I was keen to learn what to do when the Goldfish couldn’t swallow. This problem – dysphagia is its medical term – comes and goes and I could never work out why some days he could swallow and other days he couldn’t. It’s both frustrating and scary. The speech and language person had been to see him and I was aware of what foods to avoid but that doesn’t help when something which went down wonderfully one day, is stored in his mouth another.

One morning, I had to fish about half a slice of breakfast toast out of his mouth. I cut his lunchtime sandwich into tiny squares but realised when I took him to visit a friend he still had them all in his mouth. The friend has dogs, which was partly why we were going, because the Goldfish loves to be able to pat a dog but he had lost all enthusiasm and sat in his wheelchair with a vacant expression. The friend produced tea and biscuits but the Goldfish remained disinterested – which was when I realised his mouth was already still full of sandwich. He could not swallow so no wonder he couldn’t be enthusiastic about the dogs or the shortbread on offer.

I didn’t feel able to start fishing about in his mouth while were in someone else’s house. It didn’t seem polite behaviour. It was not a successful visit. Once home, I managed to extract the sandwich mush. I cooked dinner but he, perhaps not surprisingly, didn’t eat any. Later in the evening, the swallow reflex returned and the Goldfish perked up. He had toast and honey and a banana – and a wee dram of whisky. There was a referendum debate (Scottish independence) on television and he seemed to follow it with some interest. He smiled and nodded whenever Alex Salmond was speaking!

I was, therefore, very keen to learn how to help the swallow reflex kick in. It sounded easy. Stroke downwards over the person’s cheek and he/she will swallow. Hah! When I tried it next time the Goldfish couldn’t swallow, it didn’t work. I stroked harder. Still no result. I tried touching his bottom lip with a cold spoon – no result. Frustrated and tired I sat back yawning. The Goldfish yawned back at me – and swallowed!

Main lesson to remember – every single person with dementia is different and what works for one might not work for another. And what works on one occasion may not work next time.

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