ncu-spring-2018-cover-swallowing-impairments

Psychology Student
Seeks Better Treatment for Elderly Patients with Swallowing Impairments

Written by Judy Tierney

When was the last time you swallowed? Chances are, you just did. Or you’re doing it now.

Katelyn Caisse Katelyn Caisse

The average person swallows 600 times a day, usually without even thinking about it. Yet swallowing requires significant coordination among the brain, nerves, muscles, valves and the esophagus, all working together in a perfect harmony.

Any interference in this natural process can result in trouble with eating, drinking or digestion. In the worst cases, significant swallowing impairment can result in death.

Millions of people suffer from difficulties swallowing, a condition known as dysphagia. According to the American-Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA), one in 25 adults will experience a swallowing problem in the United States each year. The problem is especially prevalent among the elderly.

Katelyn Caisse, a licensed speech-language pathologist and NCU School of Social and Behavioral Sciences student, is pursuing her PhD in Psychology with a specialization in gerontology. She is committed to making a difference in the lives of patients who suffer from swallowing impairments.

“Identifying and treating dysphagia has been my passion since I started working in the speech/language field,” Caisse says. “It is my belief that throughout life, and particularly as we age, our quality of life revolves around basic human functions such as the ability to converse with others, as well as eating and drinking and fully enjoying meals. Dysphagia gets in the way of that. And it’s often underdiagnosed, misdiagnosed or undertreated.”

“Identifying and treating dysphagia has been my passion since I started working in the speech/language field.”

Katelyn Caisse

While dysphagia can impact anyone, it is often the result of a neurologic impairment such as a stroke or Parkinson’s disease or other serious medical issue like head or neck cancer. “Although swallowing difficulties are only one component of these conditions, they can significantly impact a patient’s quality of life,” says Caisse.

With many geriatric patients, families are faced with end-of-life considerations, and sometimes decisions need to be made about feeding tubes and alternative means of nutrition and hydration. Caisse is particularly interested in exploring how mental and physical health impairments can become exacerbated during this time—and contribute to a more rapid demise—when simple pleasures such as eating are taken away or not properly managed.

Her hope is to lead healthcare practitioners to use evidence-based, best practices to recognize and treat dysphagia. “By enabling geriatric patients an easier transition into end-of-life I want to help overcome this epidemic for future aging generations,” she says.

After earning her bachelor’s degree in communications sciences and a master’s in speech-language pathology, Caisse began treating adult and geriatric hospital patients at Kent Hospital in Warwick, Rhode Island in 2013. While there, she had the opportunity to work with exemplary speech-language pathologists and to collaborate with a neuropsychologist who invested significant time to help explain diagnoses and encouraged Caisse to “see the big picture” in every case. In 2016, Caisse and her fiancé, Michael, moved to southern Arizona to escape the cold winters and be closer to his family.

“I have the knowledge, creativity and expertise to solve some of the issues that surround dysphagia on a global scale. I have a responsibility to my patients and to future generations to do all that I can for them, and I believe NCU will help me achieve these goals."

Katelyn Caisse

Today, she serves at an outpatient therapy clinic for the retirement community where Michael’s grandparents live and also conducts speech and swallowing consults for a local hospital. Recognized as one of NCU’s prestigious President’s scholars, Caisse believes her scholarship will help in her quest to conduct research to advance therapeutic protocols in her field.

“The retirement community I serve offers residents a peaceful transition into end of life by allowing them to move to various levels of care all in one location,” says Caisse. “The stark reality is that most elderly individuals are left with families and caregivers trying to assist them as best as possible while they struggle with the loss of their independence.”

She encourages dysphagia patients and their loved ones to educate themselves as much as possible.

“In today’s fast-paced society and given the current state of our healthcare system, many medical professionals don’t take the time to provide an in-depth explanation of everything that’s going on with a patient,” she says. “You need to be your own advocate and advocate for your loved ones to ensure that there are discussions among caregivers, the patient and the medical team to best determine the patient’s wishes.”

“Unfortunately, no one is exempt from aging, and swallowing issues affect patients of every demographic and nationality,” she adds. “It’s an issue that is not going away any time soon.”

Caisse is excited to discover all that NCU has to offer.

“I have the knowledge, creativity and expertise to solve some of the issues that surround dysphagia on a global scale,” she says. “I have a responsibility to my patients and to future generations to do all that I can for them, and I believe NCU will help me achieve these goals.”