Oral health is an often-overlooked aspect of wellbeing for many elderly people. According to the National Institute of Health, the age group with the highest rate of tooth decay is people over 65 who have their natural teeth. Dental care for seniors should be a priority because untreated dental problems can cause more than a tooth ache; they can also affect overall health and quality of life.
As elderly people age, they tend to lose muscle strength and dexterity. The physical act of brushing and flossing may become more than just a chore: holding a toothbrush, winding floss around fingers, opening their mouths wide, and reaching those back teeth may not be possible anymore. At the same time, gum tissue may be shrinking, leaving roots vulnerable to bacteria and decay. Teeth may also have weakened with age, leading to cracks and breaks that can be painful.
Another common issue for seniors is dry mouth, which may be due to certain medications, health conditions, and aging. With less saliva to protect teeth and gums, decay can take over quickly, requiring multiple dental procedures to correct.
Seniors with dentures that don’t fit properly may also neglect their oral health because their mouths are uncomfortable. Any time elderly people experience dental pain, they may stop eating certain foods to minimize their discomfort, which can even lead to poor nutrition.
Cleaning Up the Act
It is never too late to take care of your loved one’s teeth and gums. Here are a few easy ideas to promote dental care for seniors:
• Encourage regular brushing and flossing. A brush with soft bristles is preferable, but a smart investment in a sonic toothbrush can make cleaning teeth a breeze. If traditional floss is too difficult, you can find floss picks, floss threaders, or water flossers that may be easier to use. You or a caregiver may need to supervise brushing and flossing or even take over the duties when your loved one has difficulty with motor skills or grip.
• Dentures should be taken out and cleaned every day. Your senior should rest without dentures for at least six hours every day to allow gums time to rest and reduce sores. If your senior complains of ill-fitting dentures, he or she may need to see a denture specialist called a prosthodontist who can offer solutions for denture problems.
• Regular dental exams should be scheduled for deeper cleaning and evaluation. Look for a dental practice that focuses on geriatric patients. Even seniors at a residential facility should have access to dental health professionals, and you may need to ask the facility administrators about what dental program they may have. Some dental providers have mobile practices and can go onsite to offer dental care for seniors onsite.
• Be sure to premedicate your loved one if he or she has a heart condition, anxiety, or is advised to do so by the dentist. Patients with chronic pain or dementia may also benefit from premedication.
• Combat dry mouth with regular mouth wash use or an oral spray that can moisten the tongue and gums. Chewing sugar-free gum can also stimulate saliva production. Staying hydrated is important to good oral health as well as overall physical health.
• Encourage your senior to stop smoking! Smoking and chewing tobacco can lead to oral cancer, so it is never too late to quit.
Hopefully your father has had successful dental treatments and is feeling better about his smile. Stay on top of the regular dental care, and you may be able to avoid a repeat of this experience.