Feeding Tube for the Elderly: Types, Risks, Benefits & Tips

Feeding tubes are used to deliver food, fluids and even medication. Find out the different types of feeding tubes, their pros and cons and how to care for a loved one living with a feeding tube.

by Katherine Khaw

When a person is no longer able to eat well through their mouth (due to age, sickness, et cetera), nutrition is still required. Then, a flexible tube may be used in order to continue delivering nutrition to the person’s body.

What Is a Feeding Tube?

Firstly, what is meant by a feeding tube? It is a medical device that is used to feed a person. There are short-term (temporary) feeding tubes and long-term types for nutritional assistance. However, deciding to use a feeding tube can be a complex choice as there are several types, benefits, risks, and other logistic involvement.

Typically, these are the common uses for a feeding tube:

  • Provide nutrition – So that the body is able to receive carbohydrates, protein, and fats, despite being a less conventional feeding method.
  • Provide fluids – To ensure that the body is well-hydrated without needing intravenous IV fluids, which is necessary for recovery and daily living.
  • Provide medication – As many medicines can be powdered and mixed in water, then these can be given via the feeding tube.
  • Decompressing the stomach – Some feeding tubes are used to remove air in the stomach, to prevent bloating.
  • Removing stomach contents – Undigested foods cause complications in the body, therefore suction can be used to remove these contents. This would prevent most untoward complications from occurring.

Types of Feeding Tube

Primarily, there are two types of feeding tubes: short-term and long-term. The method of attaching the tube to the person will differ based on one’s needs. Some temporary tubes are only safe to be used for up to 14 days. If they are used any longer, they may bring damage to the user.

Short-Term Feeding Tubes

Short-term feeding tubes can last up to 6 weeks, with good tube care. Examples of short-term feeding tubes are as follows:

  • Nasogastric (NG) tube – For this type of tube, is placed in the nose and down through the throat. It is within the oesophagus and ends in the stomach area. This tube can be placed in the person’s body for about 4 to 6 weeks maximum before removing or replacing it.
  • Orogastric (OG) tube – This tube is inserted in the mouth area instead despite being the same type as the NG tube. It will still follow the same pathway through the throat, oesophagus, and into the stomach area. It can remain for a maximum of 2 weeks before requiring removal or replacement.

Long-Term Feeding Tubes

At times, there may be a need for long-term feeding tubes. As such, these are some of the options available:

  • Gastric tube (G tube) – This tube allows access to the stomach through a surgical cut at the abdomen. With this, the tube would not go through the mouth or throat. Then, food, fluids, and medication can be given without the need to swallow.
  • Jejunostomy tube (J tube) – This tube is also placed through a cut in the abdomen. However, it is placed lower than the G tube area. It would reside around the end of the middle third of the small intestine, which is known as the jejunum. As the size of the tube is usually smaller than the G tube, only thin liquids and powdered drugs can be used.

Benefits of a Feeding Tube

Using a feeding tube comes with its benefits, despite its unconventional outlook. In the right situations, using a feeding tube will improve the person’s quality of life. These are some of the benefits to consider:

  • Relieving gas and bloating
  • Relieving vomiting and nausea
  • Assistance with digestion
  • Preventing food or liquid from ending up in the lungs (which may lead to aspiration pneumonia)

There is also a sense of convenience as a feeding tube can save time. They are often used when the source of eating trouble will get better, such as a person recovering from an injury or surgery. 

Risks of a Feeding Tube

Nonetheless, there are risks to consider when using a feeding tube as well. The risks are small, but these are the possible complications that may happen:

  • Clogged or damaged tube
  • Pain and infection at the tube insertion area
  • Leaking of stomach contents at the tube site
  • Gastrointestinal problems
  • Pressure sores

It is important to consider that some patients may not be suitable for using a feeding tube, such as those with Alzheimer’s disease. Many are bothered by the tube and would try to remove it. In addition, feeding tubes are costly.

Feeding Tube Insertion & Removal

It is important to know facts about feeding tubes so that you can make an informed decision. In this portion of the article, feeding tube insertion and removal details will be shared.

Feeding Tube Insertion

Placing a feeding tube does not take a lot of time. A patient would require anaesthesia, otherwise for patients who are sedated or under intensive care, then this would not be required. An endoscope will be used to check the pathway from the mouth to the stomach. Then, a small incision about half an inch long will be made. The tube will be secured in place once it has passed through the necessary pathway.

A cap will be placed on the tube. This can be opened to give food and fluids. With good care of the tube, the area around the incision should be closed tightly around the tube. Then, there should not be any leaks in a few days’ time. The ointment can be applied to protect the skin from irritation, should it occur.

Feeding Tube Removal

The method of feeding tube removal is dependent on whether it is a temporary or permanent feeding tube.

Temporary Feeding Tube Removal

The tube will be emptied of food or fluids. Then, it will take a few seconds for a healthcare professional to quickly remove the tube. Irritation to the mouth, nose and throat should be minimal.

Permanent Feeding Tube Removal

Although the feeding tube was placed in the person’s body for permanent use, there may be marked improvements in the person’s life. The individual may be able to recover well enough to eat and drink well. Then, some healthcare professionals may advise waiting for an approximate amount of time (e.g. one to two months) to see if a healthy weight can be maintained. After which, a call may be made to remove the tube.

While the withdrawal process is similar to the temporary tubes, there is more force involved. This may result in some pain and seeing small amounts of blood is not an uncommon side effect. The incision of the cut, after the tube’s removal, should close around a week’s time.

Feeding Tube Care Tips

Generally, while a person may be using a feeding tube to get their nutrition, attention should still be given for oral, skin, and site care.

Oral Care

Even if a person may only be tube fed through the stomach, bacteria will still gather. To keep the mouth clean, it is vital to brush the teeth or dentures daily. People who do not eat may not produce as much teeth-cleansing saliva as usual. If toothpaste is triggering an uncomfortable response, perhaps brushing with water may be adequate to remove most plaque buildup. It is important to brush the tongue and lips as well. Be sure to look out if there is bad breath, as it may be caused by bacterial overgrowth in the intestines or a form of infection.

Skin Care

For a person with an NG tube, usually, the placement of the tube will be rotated from one nostril to another. This will allow the skin to heal from where the tape has been. This requires the doctor’s recommendation on what is suitable for the situation. The cream may be used to prevent irritation or leakage.

Site Care

The medical personnel will inform general tips on-site care. Mostly the site of the tube installation will be washed with soap and water while taking a bath. Otherwise, you can wipe the area with a cloth and some warm water. It is better to keep the site dry and open most of the time, if possible. A thin piece of gauze can be used for covering if preferred.

Insertion and Feeding by Homage Care Professionals

A feeding tube is usually inserted by a doctor at the clinic or hospital. Then, this feeding tube may be utilised at the healthcare facility or at home, at one’s convenience. Aside from a doctor, the medical procedure of inserting the tube may also be done by someone who has undergone training, be it a healthcare professional or trained caregiver.

We at Homage can help you care for your loved ones every step of the way. Our trained care professionals are able to provide companionship, nursing care, night caregiving, home therapy and more to keep your loved ones active and engaged.

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References

Choosing Wisely (2013). Feeding Tubes for People with Alzheimer’s [Article]. Retrieved 1 September 2022, from https://www.choosingwisely.org/patient-resources/feeding-tubes-for-people-with-alzheimers/ .

Cleveland Clinic (2019). Tube Feeding (Enteral Nutrition) [Article]. Retrieved 30 August 2022, from https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/treatments/21098-tube-feeding–enteral-nutrition .

Daily Caring (2018). What You Need To Know About Feeding Tubes For Seniors With Dementia [Article]. Retrieved 1 September 2022, from https://dailycaring.com/what-you-need-to-know-about-feeding-tubes-for-seniors-with-dementia/ .

Feeding Tube Awareness Foundation (2022). Skin, Site, and Oral Care [Website]. Retrieved 1 September 2022, from https://www.feedingtubeawareness.org/oral-skin-site-care/ .

Gumaer, D. (2021). Feeding Tubes for the Elderly: Pros and Cons [Article]. Retrieved 1 September 2022, from https://www.griswoldhomecare.com/blog/2021/january/feeding-tubes-for-the-elderly-pros-and-cons/ .

Homage (2022). A Complete Guide to NGT Feeding in Malaysia [Article]. Retrieved 1 September 2022, from https://www.homage.com.my/health/nasogastric-tube/ .

Homage (2022). Hire Local Caregivers in Malaysia [Website]. Retrieved 1 September 2022, from https://www.homage.com.my/services/caregivers/ .

Huntsberry-Lett, A. (2022). The Risks and Benefits of Feeding Tubes for the Elderly [Article]. Retrieved 30 August 2022, from https://www.agingcare.com/articles/the-risks-and-benefits-of-feeding-tubes-for-seniors-445699.htm .

Whitlock, J. (2022). Types of Feeding Tubes and Their Uses [Article]. Retrieved 30 August 2022, from https://www.verywellhealth.com/what-you-should-know-about-feeding-tubes-4152086 .

About the Writer
Katherine Khaw
Katherine is an avid reader, finding joy in halls of words. Aside from the imagination wandering in worlds not here, she enjoys stargazing and gardening. In her heart of hearts, she aspires to be a writer, and to be more than mere dust.
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