It’s true that food brings people together, but what if you struggle to swallow?

A weekly program at St. Joseph’s Healthcare London Parkwood Institute is helping people in southwestern Ontario overcome dysphagia, a serious swallowing disorder that affects up to 35 per cent of seniors and is a leading cause of malnutrition and pneumonia. 

Judy Purves said her life upside down after she was diagnosed with dysphagia. She felt left out at family dinners, holiday gatherings and couldn’t go out to restaurants.

“I felt something was there in my throat. I felt like something was stuck there,” Purves said. “I’m happy to say that I can eat everything now, which is wonderful.”

Hospital programs helps swallowing disorder that’s more common than you think

Speech Language Pathologist Penny Welch-West explains the challenges of swallowing difficulties and classes aimed at helping people.

Purves was admitted to the hospital in March but transferred to Parkwood Institute in June where she attended the speech therapy Dysphagia Intervention Group (DIG). Six months later, she says she’s overcome the disorder. 

“There’s a whole lot of people who avoid going out to restaurants, who avoid going out socially because of the coughing and choking and issues they experience when they try to swallow,” said Penny Welch-West, a speech language pathologist who runs the weekly classes. 

The DIG program was launched in September 2022 and runs every Friday at 10:30 a.m. for an hour. It incorporates specialized equipment, breathing exercises, and an opportunity to practice swallowing food. 

Three woman smile.
From left to right: Elizabeth Parker (communicative disorders assistant), Penny Welch-West and Lori Keenan (speech language pathologist). (Arfa Rana/CBC)

Surrounded by the support of speech pathologists the attendees manage to swallow a few bites of their snacks.

During a DIG session, pathologists guide inpatients on breathing techniques using expiratory training equipment. They breathe through a small blue tube, exhaling five sets of five sharp exhales. The device strengthens muscles to improve breathing and swallowing. Afterwards, they practice swallowing by eating their favourite snacks.

“The concept of the DIG was to look at circuit training with the pieces of equipment, working at the exercise physiology of the swallow,” said Welch-West.

For Purves, being able to swallow makes her entire life easier – and of course, eating is a pleasure that she doesn’t take for granted.

“I’ve been really enjoying going out shopping and getting my life back to normal, but definitely looking forward to a nice Christmas meal and turkey.”

Man in wheelchair and women with short grey hair.
Judy Purves came to the Parkwood Institute in June 2023 to attend DIGs sessions with other inpatients suffering from dyphagia. (Arfa Rana/CBC)

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