As kids, our Moms and Dads made sure that we took good care of our teeth. They taught us valuable dental health habits, such as brushing and flossing daily. They carefully monitored our sweets, and regular dental appointments were always on the calendar. We encourage these same beneficial habits with our children and grandchildren, but now our elderly parents are finding it difficult to maintain the same good oral health routines that they taught us, and they need our help.
Why They Need Our Help
Today, many older adults are keeping their natural teeth longer than in the past. This is a good thing, but medical conditions can create a risk of serious dental problems. Also, elderly people may be dealing with serious illnesses, mobility issues or mental health conditions that make it even harder for them to take care of their teeth. If our parents are in assisted living or nursing homes, oral hygiene may get overlooked.
Potential Dental Problems
According to the American Dental Association (ADA), as our parents age, they are increasingly at risk for periodontal (gum) disease, especially if they are not able to keep up with good oral hygiene practices. This disease is often painless; but when left untreated, teeth can become loose and eventually lost. Also, diabetes increases the risk of infection and can worsen gum problems. In fact, a recent study by the ADA concluded that diabetes was connected with one in five cases of total tooth loss.
Older adults are often taking many medications that have dry mouth as a side effect, or they may have a medical condition that has dry mouth as a symptom. Without saliva to balance acids in the mouth, tooth decay becomes a potential problem along with painful mouth infections, such as oral thrush.
It's not just our parents who are aging; their dental work is as well. Fillings, crowns, dentures and partial dentures sometimes become worn out and need to be replaced just when it becomes hard for them to get to a dentist.
Another serious risk for older adults is oral cancer, especially if they are or were smokers. According to the ADA, the average age when oral cancer is diagnosed is 62. Dentists always do cancer screenings during routine examinations because early detection saves lives.
What We Can Do
Just as our parents did for us, we can remind our parents to brush and floss daily. If they wear dentures, they also need them to be cleaned every day. With all the risks to their oral health, get them to a dentist regularly, and take a list of their medications along. If your Mom or Dad has arthritis or another disability that makes it difficult for them to brush or floss, ask their dentist to recommend some modifications to make the task easier.
If dry mouth is an issue for your parents, you can discuss the side effects of their medications with their physician. You want to help them get relief. Over-the-counter oral moisturizers, alcohol-free mouthwashes and sugar-free gum and lozenges can help. Make sure they are using fluoride toothpaste, such as Colgate Total®. Encourage them to drink plenty of water and to avoid drinking acidic fruit juices and carbonated sodas.
Keeping on top of your parents dental care is challenging when they are in a nursing facility. Having to deal with so many other health care needs, caregivers often don't rank dental hygiene as a top concern. You may have to communicate specific oral hygiene needs to the staff. Also, be mindful of your parents' eating habits. If necessary, get input from the nursing staff. If they are not eating as much as usual, they could be experiencing dental pain or dealing with an ill-fitting denture.
It may feel like a strange role reversal, but now it's our turn to do for our parents what they did for us. Their quality of life depends on good dental health, and we must ensure that their dental needs are met for as long as they are with us.