April is recognized each year as National Oral Health Month. And here’s some good news.
These days, adults can expect to keep most, if not all, of their natural teeth when entering their senior years. That wasn’t the case a generation ago.
Studies show that in the early 1970s, barely half of Canada’s population went to the dentist every year. Now, 86% of Canadians go at least once every 2 years, and 75% go every year.
Dental and medical practices have advanced over the past several years. As well, we are much more aware of how adopting healthier lifestyles can improve overall health, including oral health.
Teeth change over time
As we age, our teeth change. Here are a few changes you might have noticed in yourself or your senior loved one.
- Sensitive teeth. You may find that teeth are more sensitive to cold drinks, hot food, or touch.
- Colour of teeth. Teeth can become yellow or darker. This is due to natural aging, as well as a lifetime of eating and drinking things that stain teeth, such as tea and coffee, berries and fruit juice, red wine, and tomato-based foods.
- Exposed roots. Gums may start to pull away from teeth, exposing roots. Seniors develop more cavities on the roots of their teeth than younger adults.
- Dry mouth. Dry mouth is a serious condition that can be caused by some medications, dehydration, and smoking.
Chronic diseases can also play a part. For example, people with diabetes are more at risk for mouth infections, especially gum disease. Gum disease can make it harder to control blood sugar levels and may also increase the risk of heart attack and stroke.
The health of our mouth plays a huge role in our overall health and well-being, so it’s important that we keep oral health a priority as we age.
Special help for seniors
When it comes to taking care of their teeth, some older adults may be anxious or afraid, either because of past negative dental experiences or attitudes towards oral care in general. The older adult may feel uncomfortable with the physical closeness of a caregiver helping them brush their teeth.
Caregivers themselves may be reluctant to help because they feel they lack the time, skill, or understanding. With the right training, though, you can help a senior with their mouth care. (See Tips for Caregivers at the end of this blog.)
Whether older adults are living at home, a retirement residence, or a long-term care facility, paying attention to good oral hygiene can help prevent more serious health problems.
- Natural teeth: brush twice a day with fluoride toothpaste, and floss at least once a day.
- Gums: brush daily and massage with a soft toothbrush or a warm, damp cloth.
- Tongue: brush twice daily.
- Dentures: whether full or partial, soak dentures once a day.
Older adults with reduced dexterity may find it helpful to use an electric toothbrush or double-headed toothbrush. You can make modifications to the handle of the toothbrush to make it easier to hold by adding acrylic to make the handle longer and/or wider.
For those with dementia
Older adults with dementia may have trouble chewing their food, and if they are experiencing any pain in the mouth, may not be able to communicate this to others. Those with dementia usually have poor dental hygiene and often resist seeking professional dental care.
How can you help
Recognize that providing direct oral care to an adult with dementia may be difficult and uncomfortable, so be patient and give it time.
- Set a routine – brush teeth at the same time, same place every day.
- Store dental health tools in familiar places.
This excellent resource from Health Canada provides tips for caregivers.
Can’t afford a dentist?
If you are 65+ and a resident of Ontario, you can apply for financial support through the Ontario Seniors Dental Care Program. This program is for those with an annual net income of $19,300 or less for a single senior, or $32,300 or less for a couple.
A special note about COVID-19
The bacteria produced by gum disease can increase the risk of developing respiratory infections like pneumonia. Practicing good oral hygiene can reduce that risk.
Bottom line: There is no time like the present to make it a habit to wash your hands AND brush your teeth!