You know that feeling you get after a meal when you’ve eaten a bit too much and although you loved the meal you are wishing you had shown a bit more restraint? Commonly known as indigestion, something I suspect all of us have experienced at some point in our lives, it’s usually easily remedied and life resumes without giving much thought to our previously grumbly tummy.
Our digestion is one of the most complex and remarkable systems in our body. It has always amazed me that it can take what we give it, process it, extract what our body needs and eliminate what it doesn’t. When it works well it is what you might call a perfect ecosystem.
When it doesn’t work so well, however, it has the potential to seriously affect our quality of life. Sadly for a person with dementia, and particularly as their dementia advances, this can create a myriad of problems that at best will affect their sense of wellbeing and at worst can be a direct threat to life itself.
Long before my father developed dementia he had a turbulent relationship with his stomach. However, living with dementia brought with it a huge array of problems for my dad’s digestive system. At its worst he was vomiting ‘chocolate brown’ – the terminology used to describe vomiting blood from a bleed in the tummy. The cause of the bleed was most likely the aspirin dad had been taking for years, prescribed to thin his blood to try and avoid more of the clots that had manifested themselves as the mini strokes that had led to his vascular dementia.
At its mildest, dad’s digestive problems were potentially ‘just’ indigestion. Without the ability to communicate, however, care staff often missed the subtle signs of discomfort – rubbing the belly, facial expressions suggesting pain, dad shifting in his seat repeatedly and occasionally belching. Changes in bowel movements weren’t so easily ignored, but they could be misunderstood.
If a person with a history of runny stools is producing runny stools that isn’t unusual for them, providing it isn’t with a frequency, appearance or accompanied by other symptoms that suggest a more serious problem. If they become constipated, however, that is unusual. Never is it likely to be more important that you understand the person’s history and habits, and observe them closely, than it is with that delicate digestive ecosystem.
During my father’s time in care homes he was medicated with laxatives one minute and then given bulking agents the next. Along with an array of other regular medications (most of which were entirely unnecessary) plus frequent courses of antibiotics (all of which listed stomach problems as a side-effect) I am quite sure his digestion didn’t have a clue what the hell was happening to it.
Other issues for dad’s digestion came when he went through a period of being unable to regulate how much food he needed, which had the potential to lead to severe overeating, discomfort and vomiting unless it was carefully regulated. For the last four years of his life he had a swallowing problem (dysphagia, which I wrote about here), which meant a diet of pureed food, unpalatable thickeners, repeated chest infections and a decline in his gag reflect, which meant he would vomit regularly. He also became increasingly at risk of dehydration.
Then, of course, there were the dreaded outbreaks of diarrhoea and vomiting bugs in his care home, which always laid everyone low. To dad’s great credit and fortitude, he did well to maintain a fairly healthy weight. Obviously as his dementia advanced and his physical health problems increased his weight did gradually decline, but we tried anything and everything to help him keep as much strength as possible.
The odds were largely stacked against us. Alongside infections and the side-effects of medications came other problems. When dad stopped walking, his digestion suffered greatly. Imagine having that indigestion I describe in the first paragraph and being unable to get up and move around to try and assist the digestive process? Digestive problems are another key reason why supporting people to maintain their mobility for as long as possible is vitally important.
Consider also how what someone consumes affects their digestion. In a care home environment, you can’t always eat your preferred food at every mealtime. You may be given supplements to make up for a lack of nutrients in mass-produced food, be subjected to additives including artificial sweeteners, and don’t even get me started on the ‘quality’ of hospital food.
You may also be given foods that aren’t friendly to your digestive system. People can develop food intolerances at any stage of life, and with a push towards high-calorie dairy products to help maintain weight, so comes the possibility of a reaction to lactose. Certainly in my dad’s case dairy products became a major problem for him in terms of phlegm production, and how this interacted with his dysphagia, all resulting in more vomiting.
Equally, consider how much gluten is included in most menus. Coeliac disease can have serious consequences for a person’s digestive system, leaving them malnourished and at increased risk of stomach and bowel diseases, even cancers, and will affect their absorption of nutrients, including calcium, making osteoporosis more likely. You only then need a person to have a fall and break a bone and the outcome can be premature death.
Diet and the consequences of it are also very serious for people who have diabetes – a common long-term condition that many people live with alongside dementia. For those individuals, the need to carefully regulate their diet is vital to prevent a potentially fatal outcome. Dental health, or lack of it, can also contribute to digestive problems if teeth are rotting and poisoning a person’s body.
Even conditions like irritable bowel syndrome, that are very common and yet poorly understood, require careful management to avoid ‘problem’ foods and the possibility of severe pain and changes in bowel movements. Indeed, the power of the digestive system is such that individual ‘trigger’ foods can be responsible for a whole host of problems, and not necessarily directly related to digestion either – take for example migraine.
If you were caring for a person with dementia who had limited communication, who had no history of migraines that you knew of and yet began experiencing regular severe headaches, nausea and changes in vision, would you consider their diet and digestion? Probably not, but keeping a food diary might prove very enlightening if you need to eliminate food as a possible source of their symptoms.
Part of the problem with digestion is that we just take it for granted. We feel hungry, we eat, we go to the loo – at its best it is a cycle of pleasure and relief that if it isn’t giving us any problems we tend to just ignore. Self-help is often the route to solving any digestive issues, but as a person’s dementia progresses that can become increasingly impossible for them.
Understanding the delicate nature of the digestive balance, the problems that can arise, and the effect they can have on a person’s wellbeing and quality of life – and at their most severe the person’s will to live – is vital to providing good quality dementia care. Alongside this it is also important to keep in mind the effect of not just how the person feels inside their body, but how they will feel if they have faecal incontinence and are left sat in their own faeces, or indeed have vomited and have been left with dried vomit on their body or clothes.
So next time you feel sick, have diarrhoea, are constipated, have acid reflux or just have symptoms that can only be described as a sore tummy, imagine feeling like that and being unable to help yourself or clearly express your symptoms. Not a pleasant thought is it?
Until next time…