A smile tells a story and lights up a room, but sadly, many seniors are afraid to show theirs because of poor dental health. According to the Washington Dental Service Foundation, 75 percent of people age 60 and older have only some of their natural teeth, and nearly 23 percent of people between the ages of 65 and 74 have severe gum disease.
For seniors in nursing homes or undergoing long hospital stays, poor dental hygiene is even more common. Because of staffing shortages at nursing homes and care facilities, many seniors do not receive adequate dental care, according to Oral Care Specialist Teresa Ciejka.
"Our elderly are suffering the epidemic of poor oral hygiene," said Ciejka in an interview with the Wausau Daily Herald.
Contributing to the issue is dry mouth, a side effect of many of the prescription and over-the-counter drugs that seniors regularly take. The condition reduces saliva production to create a breeding ground for bacteria in the mouth and affects 30 percent of seniors.
A survey conducted by the Wisconsin Department of Health Services said a third of adults in nursing homes were missing their teeth, 42 percent had tooth decay that needed a filling and 35 percent had debris on their teeth that needed cleaning.
"I think it's a national problem," said Mark Moss, dental director of the Wisconsin Oral Health Program, in an interview with the Wausau Daily Herald. "I think nobody has figured out how to address the needs of the elderly."
Decaying teeth, gum disease and tooth loss have significant impacts on seniors' health and well-being. Poor dental hygiene increases the risk of diabetes and heart disease and is related to pneumonia, not to mention the risk of gum disease. In addition, poor dental health affects nutrition, because seniors may prefer soft foods that are easily chewed and refuse to eat more nutrient-dense fruits and vegetables. Poor dental health also can affect seniors' well-being, as it can lead to low confidence and self-esteem issues.
Tips for improving dental hygiene
Improving dental health in seniors doesn't require advance techniques or complicated equipment - just ensuring that basic daily dental care is followed will significantly improve oral health and prevent worse conditions from developing. Seniors should brush their teeth twice daily and floss their teeth once daily, and those who are unable to brush or floss their own teeth should have a nurse do it for them. They should also visit a dentist regularly throughout the year. The National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research recommended that health and nursing home professionals bring seniors to a "get acquainted" visit with their dentist ahead of their first appointment, so they can become more comfortable with the office and dental team.
In addition to daily care, awareness is also important for improving senior dental health. Nurses, caregivers and other health professionals should be trained to regularly check for signs of dental issues, and should be on the lookout for symptoms of poor oral health. The Washington Dental Service Foundation provides a wealth of resources on its website, including an Adult Oral Health Pocket Card that summarizes major areas of knowledge and an Oral Health Flags document that contains a checklist of required dental care duties and warning signs for oral health issues.
Make things easy
There are many ways to make dental care easier, more convenient and less of an imposition for seniors. NIDCR advised that caregivers use the "tell-show-do" approach: Tell the patient about each step before you do it, show how you're going to do each step and then do the steps exactly as you explained them. Be patient with them as they adopt better dental care practices and recognize good behavior. Establish a routine for dental care and do it at the same time every day. To calm nerves, caregivers can also let the patient hold a favorite toy or listen to music while cleaning.
There are also some creative ways to make a toothbrush easier to hold. Try attaching the brush to the hand with a rubber band, but make sure it isn't too tight. A Velcro strap typically used for holding food utensils can also make holding a toothbrush easier. If the individual would be more comfortable with a larger toothbrush, try cutting a small slit in a tennis ball and sliding it onto the handle of a toothbrush to make it easier to hold.
A smile is a terrible thing to waste and poor dental health can cause other serious medical problems and hurt the quality of life. Nurse and caregiver awareness, daily care and regular checkups will improve oral hygiene for seniors.
Source: Sunrise Senior Living