Oral Care Strategies for Older Adults


As the years go by, most of us find that our teeth require an increasing amount of care. A cracked tooth here, a root canal there; we start to worry about eventually needing dentures like our parents or grandparents did. What many of us don’t consider is that, as we age, oral health problems can become very serious very quickly.

According to the American Dental Association (ADA), losing our teeth with age is not inevitable. Good dental care can help us keep our original teeth for life. However, the ADA does call attention to the increasing dangers of periodontal disease for people of all ages.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimate that more than 47 percent of the U.S. population aged 30 years and older have mild, moderate or severe periodontitis. Nearly two-thirds of adults over age 65 have moderate to severe periodontal disease.

Unfortunately, caregivers are often most concerned about their loved ones’ predominant health issues, such as dementia, heart failure, or arthritis. Oral care tends to fall by the wayside for seniors (and the family members who are caring for them), but it should remain a top priority for everyone.

The Importance of Oral Hygiene

Dr. Jean-Max Jean-Pierre, a board-certified periodontist in Hendersonville, Tennessee, says that research is making strong connections between poor oral health and impaired health overall. “Oral health can influence the onset, strength and persistence of many degenerative diseases,” says Dr. Jean-Pierre.

Inflammation, for example, is one of the top five reasons many degenerative diseases, such as heart disease, stroke, diabetes and neurological problems like Alzheimer’s disease, worsen. New research has found that gum disease, which results in chronic inflammation, may lead to more severe Alzheimer’s later in life. “Though oral disorders are not a direct cause of conditions such as Alzheimer’s, researchers believe there is a strong association between gum disease and Alzheimer’s risk,” Jean-Pierre explains.

The consequences of poor oral hygiene can be serious, but it is also challenging for a caregiver to encourage a senior to change their ways or provide them assistance with dental care. Dr. Jean-Pierre provides guidance for caregivers to ensure their loved ones receive the best possible dental care.

Getting a Resistant Elder to the Dentist

When an elder has not received a checkup for some time or obviously requires dental care, it can put caregivers in a difficult position. Many seniors are anxious about dentist appointments, and some refuse to go altogether.

In extreme circumstances, Dr. Jean-Pierre recommends sedation to help doctors and hygienists provide the necessary care without upsetting the patient. “There are also companies that offer mobile dental care units that can visit long-term care facilities and private homes in order to provide treatment,” he suggests.

How to Assist with Daily Oral Care

Reminding a loved one to brush their teeth or care for their dentures is one thing, but actually assisting with these tasks can be complicated, especially if they are resistant. “The best way to help those who cannot brush on their own is to wipe their remaining teeth and gums with gauze dipped in prescription Peridex,” says Dr. Jean-Pierre. Peridex is an oral antiseptic that treats gum swelling, gingivitis and other oral issues, such as periodontitis. Your loved one’s dentist can provide a prescription and detailed instructions for its use.

Dr. Jean-Pierre urges caregivers to wear disposable gloves when helping seniors with daily dental cleaning and care. Throughout the process, keep an eye out for any wounds, sores or abnormalities in the mouth, and make an appointment with a dental professional to have these issues checked out. Talk to a dental care provider to find out which tools are best for the patient. “Single tuft brushes, interdental brushes, floss holders, or gauze may be appropriate, depending on the patient,” recommends Dr. Jean Pierre.

Seniors with Few Natural Teeth Still Need Dental Care

People who only have a few natural teeth should still maintain a regular dental cleaning schedule with their dentist or periodontist. These essential periodic cleanings should include a thorough screening for new signs of periodontal infection. “If any remaining teeth have an active infection, those teeth must be extracted,” notes Dr. Jean-Pierre. Furthermore, precautions can be taken to prevent the infection from spreading and further affecting the senior’s overall health.

Oral Care Solutions Are Increasing for Seniors

While most people associate dentures with aging and oral care, dentists and periodontists have updated options to help elderly people care for their mouths, preserve their teeth and eat comfortably. New methods also increase the success rate for these treatments. “Computerized Tomography (CT) scanning equipment helps dental professionals determine the amount of bone available for dentures and other solutions,” says Dr. Jean-Pierre, “and dental implants have become an established treatment option for replacing missing teeth.”

Still, many patients are reluctant to try implant treatments, especially if they require a bone augmentation procedure. “For these patients, certain products on the market can reduce the invasiveness of the procedure as well as increase the speed of osseointegration, the structural and functional connection between bone and an artificial implant,” Dr. Jean-Pierre assures.

Caregivers and seniors should work closely with a trusted dental professional to explore all available options for maintaining and improving dental health and narrow down the best solutions.

Carol Bradley Bursack

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Over the span of two decades, author, columnist, consultant and speaker Carol Bradley Bursack cared for a neighbor and six elderly family members. Her experiences inspired her to pen, "Minding Our Elders: Caregivers Share Their Personal Stories," a portable support group book for caregivers.

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