In spite of this, the majority of elderly patients in nursing homes are not receiving proper dental care. The practice of neglecting the dental hygiene of the elderly is detrimental both to their teeth and their overall health.
The Elderly Need Help with Dental Care
Generally speaking, the patients in nursing homes are unable to perform proper dental hygiene for themselves. Between the challenges of dementia and the issues that many nursing home residents have with conditions such as arthritis, the majority of them need staff assistance with regular everyday tasks such as brushing and flossing their teeth.
Poor Dental Care Causes More than Cavities
When an elderly person is not receiving the regular dental care that he or she needs, problems quickly arise. Of course, cavities are one result—and cavities are a bad enough outcome. Yet poor dental care leads also to periodontal disease, tooth loss, deterioration of the jawbone, and more.
When an elderly patient develops gum disease, he or she is more susceptible to other diseases, too. This is because the elevated bacteria count in his or her mouth leads to more bacteria circulating in the blood, spreading elevated bacteria levels through the whole body. As a result, the immune system is weakened due to the increased strain, and other illnesses can begin to set in.
In addition to making someone more susceptible to other diseases, gum disease can increase the severity of diabetes complications. It can even lead to heart disease and cardiovascular issues, meaning that neglected dental care can actually end up causing the elderly patient to suffer a stroke or heart attack.
Poor dental hygiene can even lead to an elderly person developing pneumonia. Because of the elevated bacteria levels in the mouth, every time the person breathes in, he or she is filling the lungs with harmful bacteria. This can eventually develop into pneumonia—which can be fatal to elderly patients.
Most Elderly Patients Receive Inadequate or No Dental Care
In spite of the plethora of dangers that arise from inadequate oral hygiene, the sad fact is that most elderly people in long-term facilities such as nursing homes are not receiving enough dental care—if they are receiving any at all.
There can be a number of reasons for this. For one thing, providing proper dental care can be time consuming and challenging. Nursing facilities with staffing limitations may find skipping dental care an easy way to cut corners. For another, neglect in this area is not as readily apparent as it is in other areas, so unless an elderly person has family members who are vigilant, some nursing facilities may find easy to skip dental care.
It Is the Law that Nursing Facilities Assist Patients with Basic Tasks They Cannot Do for Themselves
Nursing facilities are required to assist their residents with self-care tasks that they are unable to perform for themselves. This includes helping them to reposition themselves in their beds to avoid the development of bedsores. It also means conducting regular bathing and other hygiene practices, and performing dental care for them. This is a federal mandate and nursing facilities that neglect this can risk serious repercussions from the federal government.
Becoming an Advocate for an Elderly Loved One
Family members of elderly people who are in nursing homes can let the staff know that they are aware of and will be monitoring the issue of dental care for their senior. Unfortunately, this is a task that is only too easy for busy nursing home staff members to skip. Yet, if the staff knows someone is monitoring the issue, they will be more likely to provide the necessary care.
A family member bringing up the topic in a non-confrontational way may suffice to let the staff know that concerned others are keeping tabs on a loved one’s dental health. Typically, this is all that is needed to ensure that proper oral hygiene practices are met.
Sometimes elderly persons with dementia resist staff efforts to brush their teeth. If this is the case, family members might consider doing it for them. An elderly loved one with dementia may allow a family member to care for his or her teeth.
Family members always worry about elderly loved ones in nursing homes. One way to express that concern is to check and make sure they receive needed dental care.
Dolan, T.A., Atchison, K., Huynh, T. N. (September 1, 2005). Access to Dental Care Among Older Adults in the United States. Journal of Dental Education (69)9: 961-974. Available at https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Kathryn_Atchison/publication/14936528_Implications_of_access_utilization_and_need_for_oral_health_care_by_the_non-institutionalized_elderly_on_the_dental_delivery_system/links/53dfb6080cf27a7b8306a612.pdf. Retrieved September 7, 2016.
Kiyak, A., Grayston, N. M., Crienan, C. L. (February 1993). Oral health problems and needs of nursing home residents. Abstract. Community Dentistry and Oral Epidemiology, 21(1): 49-52. Available at http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1600-0528.1993.tb00719.x/full. Retrieved September 6, 2016.