As a caregiver responsible for a senior, it is important to know that mouth health affects overall health and quality of life. Seniors may have tooth loss, spaces between their teeth (due to receding gums or movement of teeth) and and/or a dry mouth (xerostomia). All of these factors, along with decreased hand dexterity, make the mouth more difficult to keep clean. This puts the senior at a greater risk for tooth decay and gum disease.
Nearly 600 commonly prescribed medications list dry mouth as a side effect. It can be so severe that cheeks and tongues are dry, food sticks to the teeth, and speaking and swallowing becomes very difficult. In bad cases, the mouth can have a burning feeling. A dry mouth forms from either fewer amounts or quality of saliva, or both. A diet high in sugar and refined carbohydrates such as, breads, cookies and candies, can lead to cavities. Often seniors choose these foods because they are easier to prepare and eat. Candies sometimes relieve a dry mouth and increase saliva flow. Be sure to limit sugars and refined carbohydrates in the diet. Clean your teeth thoroughly at least twice daily. Good oral health can reduce the chance of bacteria from the mouth passing into their lungs and causing pneumonia. In addition, poor gum health can worsen diabetes. One way to improve the brushing habits of your elder is to learn better habits yourself (see “Brushing Ideas” below). There may be less resistance to your advice if you share a new skill together.
Daily brushing with a soft toothbrush and fluoride toothpaste is the first step to good oral health. If dry mouth is a problem, there are oral care products specifically made for this condition which can be helpful. It is important to remove plaque thoroughly from all surfaces of the teeth, at least twice daily. Antibacterial toothpastes have been shown to reduce plaque and gingivitis, and it is important to clean in between the teeth with dental floss or interdental brushes.
By brushing each morning, the mouth feels fresh and food tastes better. Brush during the day; particularly after a snack. Before bed and after any last snack or drink, brush again using products that moisten their mouth during the night. Use a gentle circular brushstroke from the gums to the tips of the teeth. Spend at least two minutes to brush all surfaces. Brushing often and with appropriate products will help create a happier loved one and healthier smile.
Melanie V. Taverna MS, RDH
Assistant Professor/Clinical Faculty UT Health Science Center at San Antonio