Authors focus on swallowing problems in the elderly, ill

Julia Spitz

If you're dealing with Alzheimer's, cancer, Parkinson's disease, multiple sclerosis, head injury or stroke, the last thing you need is another problem.

But in making her rounds for the Natick (Mass.) Visiting Nurses Association, speech-language pathologist Roya Sayadi found patients with different diagnoses had something in common.

"The common denominator is that they nearly all have swallowing problems," said Dr. Joel Herskowitz, Sayadi's husband and co-author of "Swallow Safely."

"Roya has found that there's often a huge knowledge gap when it comes to swallowing and swallowing problems," said Herskowitz, a pediatric neurologist.

"This knowledge gap is seen with the patients, who frequently don't understand the seriousness of the problem, which could become life-threatening through choking, pneumonia or malnutrition."

Even professional caregivers can be unaware of symptoms and consequences, he said.

"What people need to know is that such simple things as coughing frequently during mealtimes, tearing of the eyes or a runny nose while eating, and a change in voice after eating, can be life-threatening."

They also need to know techniques and tips that can help.

"There's more that can be done than simply (saying), 'Be careful' and 'Chew well.'

"In contrast to the problem of falling in the elderly, there is nothing available for the general public" on the problems elders and others can have swallowing their food and drinks, said Herskowitz. "We made it a point to tell the story of swallowing and its problems in clear, non-technical language. Plus we have a wonderful illustrator in Anet James.

"Our dream is to reach people before things reach life-threatening proportions."

The Natick residents, who are the parents of four children, said their first collaboration as authors went well.

"We complement each other," said Herskowitz.

"We'd never done anything like this before. The closest we came was remodeling our home in Natick, a two-year project. We found, thankfully, that brought us closer together, and that's been the effect of writing the book, too.

"Swallow Safely: How Swallowing Problems Threaten the Elderly and Others. A Caregiver's Guide to Recognition, Treatment and Prevention," $14.95, is available at and

Julia Spitz can be reached at 508-626-3968 or