Decades of wisdom, laughter and experience inspires an aging smile. However, special considerations must be taken to accommodate the changes in oral health as our loved ones age. Seniors face certain risks that increase with age, and these changes affect caregivers as well, as they’re central to monitoring the care of their loved one’s teeth and gums.
Caregivers should take special considerations for hygiene in older adults:
- Older adults have more years of wear, and their teeth and bones of their jaw are weaker due to bone density loss.
- Seniors have also likely collected more corrective measures like caps, crowns and fillings.
- Changes in dexterity affect their ability to reach their back teeth, which understandably affects their oral hygiene.
- Dry mouth (xerostomia) is another substantial contributor to poor oral hygiene in older adults, affecting 30% of adults older than 65 and up to 40% of adults older than 80. Dry mouth can be caused by several factors, including medications for blood pressure and diabetes, smoking or chewing tobacco, and simple dehydration caused by either not drinking enough water or consuming too much caffeine.
What’s most important for senior oral health?
Getting older adults to the dentist can be difficult. In fact, according to the American Dental Association, neary a fifth of people age 75 and older haven’t seen a dentist in the past five years. This is in part due to the fact that Medicare doesn’t include routine dental care, and Medicaid doesn’t require states to provide it to adults (with the exception of 15 states that offer a comprehensive dental benefit to Medicaid recipients), according to the nonprofit Center for Health Care Strategies. Cognitive decline, fear of pain, impaired mobility and cost are other reasons that impede older adults from visiting the dentist.
Therefore, it’s important for caregivers to focus on home oral care. According to the ADA, seniors and adults with cognitive limitations should be encouraged to adopt the following oral hygiene routine:
- Brush their teeth two or more times daily, ideally with the use of an electric or battery-operated toothbrush. A manual toothbrush can be modified with a fabric fastener or attaching a bicycle handlebar to help accommodate for lost mobility.
- Remove, inspect and clean any removable prosthetic devices (e.g., dentures) before bed and return to the mouth in the morning.
- Older adults are vulnerable to cavities, and extensive research shows a high-fluoride (5,000 ppm) toothpaste (available with a prescription) results in significantly fewer cavities than regular OTC toothpastes, which have 1,000-1,500 ppm.
- Floss daily. The use of floss holders or interdental cleaners/brushes can aid in cleaning between teeth of older adults.
Why dental health should be a priority for caregivers of seniors
Dental hygiene should be a priority for caregivers, as neglect is linked to certain serious health problems. For example, a new study has linked oral health to heart health, finding that older women who harbor certain bacteria in their mouths might be at increased risk of developing high blood pressure.
A link also exists between periodontitis and diabetes, as gum inflammation can become systemic and weaken the body’s ability to control blood sugar.
Other hygiene-body-related connections under current investigation include rheumatoid arthritis, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and obesity.
How caregivers can help their senior loved one
Caregivers can take many steps to help their loved one with oral hygiene. Doing so will not only minimize complicated and cumbersome trips to the dentist but will also go a long way in protecting their overall health.
Note any pain or changes in diet preferences
Pain or changes in diet preferences or appetite may indicate your loved one is experiencing a dental problem. A trip to the dentist may be in order.
Break directions into short and simple steps, or use the “watch me” technique
Instead of the vague statement, “Brush your teeth,” walk your loved one through each step. For example, “Hold your toothbrush,” “Put paste on the brush,” and then, “Brush your teeth.” You can also demonstrate brushing your own teeth.
Find financial aid for dental care
Many dentists offer their services at reduced fees to older adults with limited or fixed income who can’t afford regular dental care through dental society-sponsored assistance programs. This dental aid varies across communities, so refer to your local dental society for information about where you can find the nearest assistance programs in your area.
Remember that as a caregiver you’re the first line of defense between germs and your loved one’s oral immune system. The dental care of your loved one may extend or save their life.