As seniors age, they become more vulnerable to dental and gum problems. The danger is especially great for persons with dementia, who may lose the ability to properly practice oral care and be unable to alert caregivers to developing problems. However, caregivers can take several important steps to help their loved ones head off or lessen the effects of oral problems.
Several factors combine to make dental and gum problems more common among seniors. The Centers for Disease Control notes, for example, that gum recession, common in advanced age, exposes more and more of the dental roots to food, often resulting in cavities. Meanwhile, old fillings within the teeth may get partially chipped away, setting the stage for new cavities next to the original ones.
In addition, many seniors take prescription and over-the-counter medicines that cause dry mouth as a side effect, which contributes to oral problems. As the National Institutes of Health explains, saliva plays an important role in fighting tooth decay and oral infections. By inhibiting the production of saliva, the causes of dry mouth deprive seniors of the body’s natural defenses. Dry mouth also tends to increase the discomfort of denture wearers.
How can a caregiver address some of the difficulties listed above? Start by making an assessment of your loved one’s cognitive and physical capabilities as they apply to oral care. This will help you determine the extent to which self-care is possible and what level of assistance or intervention may be required on your part. If your loved one has sufficient physical dexterity and focus of mind for some degree of self-care, consider the following steps:
- Make sure he or she is using a fluoride toothpaste, and add a daily fluoride rinse to the routine. Some people have the misunderstanding that fluoride use is only effective for children. That is incorrect. The Centers for Disease Control reminds us that fluoride should be used at “all ages.” It helps to strengthen teeth and prevent cavities at every age.
- Impress upon your loved one that brushing at least twice a day is just as important as it is for young people. Preferably, use a brush with soft bristles, advises the American Dental Association. Flossing also is important, but if that is too difficult, other products are available in drug stores. As the Mayo Clinic suggests, “Resist the temptation to use toothpicks or other objects that could injure your gums and let in bacteria.”
- Encourage your loved one to sip water frequently to keep the mouth moist and comfortable. Ask if he/she experiences dry mouth. If the answer is yes, ask the doctor if a medication may be to blame, and if so, whether a substitute drug is feasible. Also, consult with your loved one’s dentist regarding other possible causes and remedies regarding dry mouth.
- Take your loved one to the dentist on a regular basis, at least twice a year.
If your loved one has very limited cognitive and physical abilities, caregivers will find it necessary to play a more active role in administering oral care. The Alzheimer’s Association, for example, advises that people in the middle and latter stages of the disease, “may forget what to do with toothpaste or how to rinse, or may be resistant to assistance from others.” In such cases, the association recommends trying short, simple instructions (“hold your toothbrush; put paste on the brush”) and using a “watch me” technique, in which the caregiver simulates brushing.
If you must do your loved one’s actual brushing, here are some tips to help you from the National Institutes of Health.
In general, if your loved one cannot communicate effectively, be aware of signs of pain or distress. Loss of appetite or resistance to oral care may be indications of something that needs to be addressed urgently.
Regardless of his or her state of health overall, proper oral hygiene can be a critical factor in heading off serious conditions and enabling a better quality of life for your loved one.