Rediscovering life’s pleasures

Those who have difficulty swallowing are savouring the opportunity to take part in an innovative group therapy program at St. Joseph's Health Care London that is both social and restorative – like food itself.

London, Ontario - So many of life’s pleasures revolve around food – celebrations, traditions, rituals, holidays and gatherings – particularly at this time of year. For those who have difficulty swallowing, however, these joys can be hardships, often isolating those struggling with this debilitating condition.

It’s called dysphagia and Penny Welch-West, a speech language pathologist (SLP) at St. Joseph’s Health Care London’s Parkwood Institute, knows well the impact it can have on her patients’ quality of life.

“If friends want to meet for coffee, or family members gather for a holiday meal, dysphagia patients may feel left out,” says Penny. “It doesn’t help that these individuals are often on feeding tubes, hidden under clothing, masking their challenges, which makes this an often invisible and misunderstood struggle.”

A person swallows 600 to 1000 times a day “and most of us don’t think about it,” adds Penny. “For people with dysphagia, it’s all they think about.”

The condition, which affects up to 35 per cent of older adults living in the community, is a leading cause of malnutrition and pneumonia caused by aspiration, and contributes to longer hospital stays.

To support her patients, Penny came up with an idea that brings individuals together to work on swallowing exercises and rehabilitation. Regardless of the injury or condition that left them unable to swallow, these patients learn they are not alone, draw on support from one another, and embark on the recovery journey collectively in a supportive social setting. Called the Dysphagia Intervention Group (DIGs), the innovative approach quickly began making a tremendous difference for patients like Judy Purves.

In March 2023, Judy was hospitalized with a rare bacterial infection in her bloodstream that nearly killed her. She was on life support in intensive care for two months and spent another two months in hospital. Her muscles atrophied and she lost the ability to walk and, perhaps more importantly, swallow. Judy was transferred to St. Joseph’s Parkwood Institute, where she spent 10 weeks receiving specialized care in the Complex Care Program and was introduced to the DIGs program.

The DIGs sessions incorporate specialized rehabilitation equipment, breathing and targeted expiratory exercises, and an opportunity for participants to practice swallowing at their own pace with their own food goals in mind. Penny and her colleagues work with each patient to teach them proper swallowing form and function and support them with their individual goals.

Music adds to the ambiance in various ways. Not only does it lift moods and create an enjoyable backdrop that boosts camaraderie, but therapeutic drills can match the beat or simply provide a distraction for sets that require repetition.

While rehabilitation progress for various conditions is often highly visible, like improvements seen when regaining mobility, “the invisible challenges and gains made in dysphagia therapy may not always be apparent – yet they matter just as much,” adds Penny.

Judy would know. Today she is home and back to eating her favourite food – pizza. Learning to swallow, she says, “was just as important as learning to walk again.”

Read more about Judy and the DIGs program on St. Joseph’s website.

Media are invited to see a DIGs session in action on Dec. 15 at 10:30 am and talk to patients and staff. For more information and to arrange attendance, please contact:

Dahlia Reich, Communication Consultant St. Joseph’s Health Care London
519 646-6100 ext. 65294, Cell: 519 619-0971

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