Oral Health for Seniors

Tips for Keeping a Healthy Smile for Life
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A healthy smile has a special way of representing a joyful soul. However, aging is often accompanied by increased dental concerns. For seniors, dental care and treatment become more important and necessary to prevent darkened teeth, cavities, gum and root disease, abscesses, and tooth loss. Poor dental care has been linked to general health conditions as well, particularly heart disease. Therefore, dental care is just as important, if not more so, in senior years as it is in middle age and younger years.

Signs of oral health problems in seniors include:

  • Poor tooth color
  • Dry mouth
  • Loss of taste sensation
  • Gum disease
  • Loss of teeth
  • Uneven facial appearance or jawline due to loss of teeth
  • Fungus growth, such as thrush, in the mouth
  • Negative physical reactions to dentures

Caring for teeth is often neglected in the senior years for a variety of reasons, including cost, time, and, depending on the treatment, pain. When care is reduced, however, problems set in and damage occurs. In addition, caring for teeth becomes even more of an issue when a senior needs assistance due to stroke, injury, or dementia.

Tips for Helping Disabled Seniors With Dental Care

For seniors needing a role model to complete this task of daily hygiene, consider brushing your own teeth with them. This "game" may help motivate and encourage them to imitate you.

For some disabled seniors, you may need to do the brushing. This may be difficult at first, but it gets easier as time goes on. Use a soft toothbrush and toothpaste made for sensitive teeth, such as Sensodyne. Brush slowly and thoroughly to be certain all the teeth, top and bottom, have been cleaned. Be sure you help them floss as well. Using a flossing tool that has a short handle is the easiest way to do this.

Offer an apple, carrot, or celery at the end of each meal to help cleanse teeth naturally.

For older adults with Alzheimer's or those who require nursing assistance, consider using a product called Toothettes, with Perox-a-Mint. Toothettes are a grooved sponge on a popsicle stick. Dip the Toothette into the minty solution and slide it over each tooth. No rinsing is required and the solution may be swallowed with no adverse effects.

One other thing: Reminding people with dementia to do something just reinforces their frustration about forgetting to do a routine task. Perhaps a better approach is to say, after a meal, "Let's go brush our teeth" instead of "Do you want to brush your teeth?" or "You need to brush your teeth."

Caring for teeth goes a long way toward preventing or reducing dental problems, even for those over 65. Basic brushing with fluoride toothpaste as well as flossing twice daily removes the food residue that starts decay in the first place. As older adults tend to prefer sweet foods, quickly removing leftover food from the tooth surface becomes even more important.

Also, don't forget about antibacterial mouthwash. It helps control plaque and gum disease by killing off resideue that eventually causes tooth decay. Offer mouthwash daily. If the older adult is disabled, demonstrate how to swish it around in your mouth and spit it into the sink.

No matter what a person's age, regular dental office visits are necessary to identify oral problems early as well as to provide a professional cleaning on a quarterly basis. These visits go a long way toward maintaining healthy teeth in a healthy mouth.

Financial Costs and Help

One of the major obstacles to getting dental services for the over-65 crowd is the cost. If a person doesn't have a good dental plan, even routine dental work can be very expensive. Finding basic dental care services at an affordable price from a nearby provider can be challenging, especially for seniors on fixed incomes or without access to transportation. Having to travel long distances just to get affordable dental care is unfortunately common for seniors, especially those in rural areas.

To make dental care more affordable, seniors should not hesitate to ask dental offices for discounted senior pricing as well as for access to programs that offer financial assistance. These are available, and cost savings are significant. Local dental associations provide information to consumers about what types of financial resources are available. Such organizations can be found in most medium-size communities through the local business phone book or online.

Caring for teeth should not stop with the passing of years, and old age does not have to result in the loss of teeth. With basic care, regular dental exams, and access to various financial assistance options, those over 65 can maintain healthy teeth for many years.

Joseph Zelig D.D.S.

Dr. See full bio