Dental care – can it really be all that important to seniors and their family caregivers?
Family caregivers have so much responsibility every day just getting all the jobs done. We often don’t get all the daily tasks completed as the sun begins to set. We merely add the unfinished tasks to the next day’s list in hopes they will finally get accomplished then.
One task that we should all ensure is completed every day is good oral care for our senior loved ones.
Having a healthy mouth and teeth help to keep our seniors healthy overall. If they experience mouth pain, bleeding gums, poor dental health and infections in the mouth it will impact their eating, nutrition and medical health.
Our senior loved ones (and those assisting them) should not overlook keeping their teeth, gums and mouth in good condition with daily care.
Whether they have all their teeth, some of their teeth or none of their own teeth, they need to keep the dental care coming.
Common Senior Mouth Care Issues
Many seniors have to fight with a variety of different mouth care issues when it comes to the aging process. Hopefully these tips can help you help them overcome those issues.
Dry Mouth — also called Xerostomia
Having a dry mouth is not a normal part of aging and can be very serious. When your senior complains about having a dry mouth it means that the mouth is not producing enough saliva to keep their mouth wet. There are consequences of having a dry mouth, so it should be evaluated by your senior’s doctor.
A dry mouth could lead to cavities, difficulty chewing, mouth infections and even stop them from talking. If they have dentures, a dry mouth could make them fit uncomfortably and even lead to gum sores.
There are causes of a dry mouth.
- Medications can cause dry mouth.
- Some medical diseases, such as Parkinson’s and diabetes also result in dry mouth.
- Cancer therapy, including radiation and chemotherapy can cause dry mouth.
Check with your senior’s doctor to see if these causes can be corrected to prevent other problems. Some seniors get relief from hard candy, such as lemon drops, or from artificial saliva.
The doctor can guide your senior on the correct treatment including medications to help your senior’s glands work better. Your senior’s dentist may suggest a special mouth rinse to help with dry mouth.
Gum disease is an infection of the gums and tissues that help to hold the teeth in place. It can happen at any age and is not about aging. It occurs when bacteria in the form of plaque builds up along and below the gum line. Bacteria is naturally occurring in our mouths, but when left to buildup it can lead to damage.
There are two kinds of gum disease, gingivitis and periodontitis. Red, swollen and bleeding gums is an indication of gingivitis while periodontitis is a more severe condition in which gums pull away from teeth and form infected pockets that damage teeth. Many times, periodontitis leads to tooth loss.
Smoking is the greatest risk for gum disease.
Children are not the only ones who can get cavities. All teeth can become damaged. Plaque buildup on the teeth can create acid that in time will eat away at the tooth causing a cavity. A cavity can form around an old filling or in between teeth too. Tooth roots can also be affected by tooth decay when the gums recede with age.
Some seniors have teeth that have discolored over time. This can be due to a lifetime of stain-causing foods, smoking or a thinning of the enamel allowing dentin to show through casting a shadow on the teeth. Your senior can avoid foods and drinks that can cause further discoloration such as coffee or talk to his doctor about possible medication causes.
Tooth whitening, for which there are several options, can be done if their tooth color bothers them.
Many seniors who have dentures or other dental appliances can get inflamed sore mouth cavities caused by rubbing dental appliances. It can happen in the cheeks, gums, tongue and palate. If dentures become loose they can rub on the gums or cheek causing sores.
Get your seniors’ dentures checked by the dentist, who might be able to reline them or advise adding foam inserts or denture cream to avoid further rubbing or even simply make a new set.
Your senior may also need treatment to help heal the sores and a change in diet texture so that they can eat enough nutrition until the pain is relieved.
Some seniors get thrush when they take certain medications. Thrush is an infection in the mouth caused by yeast. A white tongue, mouth or cheeks is a distinctive sign of thrush.
Attempts to clean the white spots lead to red, inflamed tissue and might even cause bleeding. Your senior’s doctor will need to diagnose the problem and may prescribe antifungal medications to clear the infection.
Protecting Aging Teeth and Mouth
Protecting their mouth, teeth and gums is especially important for seniors, since having mouth trouble can lead to a host of problems.
When your senior can’t eat all kinds of foods due to mouth pain or trouble chewing, they can lose weight and muscle mass. Malnutrition has consequences, including frequent falls, bone fractures and potential loss of the ability to age in place at home.
Here are some things you can encourage your senior to do to keep their mouth healthy and help protect their physical well-being.
- Brush regularly. Most dentists recommend twice a day but your senior could also brush after meals to keep their teeth and gums clean and prevent plaque buildup if they are at risk.
- Use a fluoride toothpaste. This will help prevent decay. It’s not just for kids!
- Floss often to keep plaque from building up between the teeth.
- Drink fluoridated water to further help keep your senior’s teeth healthy. Drink plenty of fluids throughout the day.
- Visit the dentist regularly.
- Eat a well-balanced diet to stay healthy inside.
- Stop smoking or using smokeless tobacco or snuff, all of which can harm teeth and mouth.
- Chew sugarless gum.
- Avoid sticky foods that can cause decay if allowed to stay on the teeth. If your senior eats sugary foods, be sure to encourage brushing afterward.
- If your senior has trouble holding the toothbrush due to arthritis, try an electric toothbrush that will do more of the work to clean all teeth. Your senior’s dentist may be able to recommend a more effective prescription toothpaste or mouth wash/rinse that will help clean teeth if it is difficult to maneuver the toothbrush. You may need to provide the care for them if holding a brush is too difficult or painful.
It is very important to help protect your senior’s overall health by ensuring that they care for their teeth and gums.
Seniors typically not have dental insurance so may refuse to see the dentist regularly. You can purchase a dental plan specifically for them or visit a dental school in the area that will provide very low cost care. There are also many dentists who will offer special prices for seniors knowing they have no dental coverage.
We couldn’t agree more with this quote from Miguel de Cervantes:
Every tooth in a person’s head is more valuable than a diamond