The link between oral health and overall health has become increasingly apparent. Making sure seniors take care of their teeth and gums is more important than ever. But caring for our mouths as we age can be challenging, both at home and in long-term care settings. According to the CDC, oral health problems are prevalent in low-income seniors, those without health insurance, and racial and ethnic minorities. Many seniors lose their dental benefits when they retire and don’t get dental coverage through Medicare. Seniors with disabilities and in nursing homes are also at higher risk for dental concerns.
What Are Common Oral Health Issues In Seniors?
The CDC has published some startling information about oral health in seniors:
- One in five adults 65 and older have untreated tooth decay.
- Sixty-eight percent of seniors have gum disease, often linked to chronic illnesses like diabetes and respiratory disease.
- One in five seniors and more than one-quarter of those over 75 have lost all of their teeth.
- Oral cancer is most common in older adults, with 62 as the median age at diagnosis.
- Other common conditions include mouth sores and dry mouth, which can result from nutritional deficiencies and medications.
Why Is Oral Health Important As We Age?
Good oral care keeps seniors happier and healthier. A University of Pennsylvania study showed that lack of adequate dental care in seniors could lead to:
- Poor self-esteem
- Decreased social interaction
- Problems eating
- Problems with speech
- Sleep disruption
- Mouth pain
Oral infections and gum disease can lead to broader health problems. Missing teeth can make eating more difficult and lead to nutritional deficiencies. Studies have shown that good oral hygiene in the elderly can reduce the risk of aspirational pneumonia, as it keeps potentially harmful bacteria from growing in the mouth and making their way to the lungs.
Oral Care and Dentures
While more and more seniors are keeping their natural teeth as they age, dentures and other prosthetics are still common. Patients sometimes mistakenly believe that once natural teeth are removed, oral hygiene is less critical. But dentures can also be a breeding ground for bacteria and fungus, so maintaining hygiene is essential. Some tips for denture care include:
- Cleaning daily with a denture brush.
- Regular soaking with ADA-approved cleaning tablets in addition to manual cleaning.
- Cleaning your denture case weekly to kill bacteria.
- Visiting your dentist yearly for a professional cleaning and oral health check.
- The University of Pennsylvania study also recommends making sure patients remove dentures for at least six hours a day to allow the gums to breathe.
Why Is Oral Care Challenging for Seniors?
Taking care of our teeth and gums remains vital as we age. However, medical conditions and the aging process can make it more difficult. That’s why it’s essential for caregivers, both at home and in long-term care settings, to make sure seniors are sticking with oral hygiene routines. Some obstacles to overcome include:
- Arthritis or other medical conditions can make holding a toothbrush challenging.
- Memory loss and cognitive impairments can make routine dental care difficult.
- Seniors may resist assistance from caregivers.
Oral Health and Long Term Care
Oral health is becoming an area of increasing focus in long-term care facilities as the link to overall health becomes more evident. Nurses and CNAs help functional seniors take care of their teeth and gums and provide assistance for patients unable to do self-care. Some steps facilities are taking to improve oral care include:
- Incorporating routine professional dental care.
- Increased attention to oral hygiene, including brushing teeth and use of mouth rinse as needed.
- Cleaning dentures and other prosthetics.
- Improved hand and glove hygiene for caregivers.
- Dental assessments by nursing staff and increased staff training in oral health.
- Protocols for reporting broken or loose teeth, bleeding gums, and poorly fitting dentures.
- Providing reminders and assistance for those with mild memory loss.
How Can Occupational Therapy Help With Oral Care?
At long-term care facilities and at home, occupational therapy keeps seniors active and engaged. It helps maintain function and can keep patients on top of daily tasks, including oral care. Occupational therapists can help with activities from opening a tube of toothpaste to brushing dentures. Therapists can also help seniors and caregivers find adaptive technologies to make dental hygiene easier. According to the University of Pennsylvania, tools include:
- Special toothbrushes, including electric toothbrushes and adaptive grips
- Disposable flossers and adaptive floss holders
- Special toothpicks like Stimudents
- Foam props to help keep patients’ mouths open while caregivers assist with cleaning.
At Evergreen Health & Rehab, helping residents care for their teeth and gums through occupational therapy and other practices is part of our commitment to overall health. Emphasizing oral health is an essential part of ensuring patients’ comfort and well-being.