A Dentist’s Guide to Helping Aging Loved Ones with Oral Care

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Caring for an aging loved one is no easy task. Apart from the financial, logistical and emotional challenges, it can also be daunting to educate yourself on everything that needs to be done to keep older family members physically healthy as their needs change.

This is even truer when someone you love has Alzheimer’s or dementia, which can make even basic, everyday care a challenge. So, sometimes, amidst doctor’s appointments, medication schedules and taking care of your own responsibilities, things like dental care fall by the wayside.

But it’s important to keep in mind that oral health is closely linked to overall physical health, so it shouldn’t be neglected. With a few tips and a little planning, you can be sure to give your elderly loved one’s dental care the attention it deserves.

Paying for Dental Care
It’s an unfortunate fact that most Medicare plans do not cover dental care for seniors. But the good news is that there are several other options when it comes to getting dentist checkups and treatments if you can’t pay out of pocket.

  • Many dental schools offer free or low-cost dental services in order to help dentists-in-training get real-life experience. Check the American Dental Association’s list of accredited schools to see if this might be an option in your area.
  • There are several non-profits that provide free dental care to elderly patients and those with disabilities – Dental Lifeline and Dentistry from the Heart are a couple that may work for you.
  • Your community might have health centers that offers affordable dental care on a sliding scale to patients with limited incomes. Search the Department of Health & Human Services’ community health center database to find one near you.
  • Check Tooth Wisdom’s state-by-state list of resources including dental care, transportation and social services.

Medication & Other Health Conditions

There are many reasons that it’s critical to always keep an updated list of your loved one’s prescription medications. But possible drug interactions aren’t the only reason – many common medications cause dry mouth, which isn’t a serious problem in and of itself, but can result in oral health problems.

We need a constant supply of saliva to keep our mouths clear of food particles and bacteria. So when we don’t produce enough saliva, it can lead to tooth decay and gum disease. Here are a few easy ways to combat dry mouth:

  • Chew sugar- free gum
  • Suck on sugar free hard candies
  • Sip water regularly throughout the day
  • Limit caffeine
  • Eliminate tobacco use
  • Avoid decongestants
  • Use a humidifier
  • Use a mouthwash made for dry mouth

There are many close links between various health conditions (heart disease, diabetes and even arthritis, for example) and oral health, so remember to inform your elderly loved one’s dentist of all of the medications and health conditions.

Osteoporosis & Teeth
Osteoporosis is a condition that is connected to dental health because they both involve bone loss, which is common in seniors. Though the link hasn’t yet been firmly established, there are studies that show that women with osteoporosis have higher rates of gum disease than those who don’t have osteoporosis, and that the drugs used to treat it can also help keep periodontal disease at bay.

Make sure that the person you care for practices everyday habits that can help prevent both osteoporosis and gum disease:

  • Consume foods and beverages with lots of calcium – dairy products, leafy greens like kale, beans, oranges, nuts and products that offer calcium-fortified versions.
  • Take in natural vitamin D from 15 minutes a day in the sun or take supplements to increase vitamin D, which helps with calcium absorption.
  • Avoid soda
  • Cut down on salt in the diet
  • Get regular exercise

Dental Care & Cognitive Diseases
Under the best of circumstances, caring for the dental health of an aging loved can be challenging, but it’s even further complicated when Alzheimer’s, dementia or other degenerative brain diseases are present. It’s common for those suffering from these disorders to forget to follow daily oral hygiene practices or to even remember why such care is important.

Try to establish dental routines that are strictly followed every day and have your loved one do the actual brushing and flossing themselves for as long as possible. As their condition progresses, you may have to remind them about the routine, monitor and give them each necessary step – saying something like, “Brush your teeth” might result in confusion and frustration, so it’s best to verbalize each step included in the process.

You can also try holding your hand over theirs to guide them, but you may eventually have to take over brushing and flossing their teeth for them. And remember that regular visits to the dentist are important in maintaining oral health and providing you guidance in assisting with care.

Although taking care of your aging loved one’s teeth can sometimes feel like the last thing you need to worry about, it’s important to know that poor oral care can lead to much more serious issues down the line. Consistent dental routines go a long way in helping to maintain overall health and happiness.

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About Dr. Kimberly Dyoco

Dr. Kimberly Dyoco is an avid dental health blogger who enjoys sharing her expertise and knowledge on a variety of publications. She is a general and cosmetic dentist in Chicago and the founder of the practice One Mag Smile on the famous Magnificient Mile in the heart of downtown Chicago. To learn more, visit www.1magsmile.com.

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