There is no doubt that COVID-19 has reshaped the way we approach dental care for all areas of life, including dental care for the elderly.
For many of us, changes may be relatively straightforward to implement. However, for the more vulnerable members of our community – the elderly in particular – taking steps to access the care needed often isn’t as simple.
Even if your elderly loved one is living in an aged care residence where round-the-clock attention is available, there are aspects of personal health care which don’t fall within the scope of the aged care facility.
Dental care is one of them. And it’s this topic which is gaining attention among my dental peers.
As the proportion of the Australian population who are over 65 continues to rise – it’s currently at 20 percent – those working in the dental industry need to consider the very specific needs of patients in this age bracket.
It’s certainly a focus for my team and me and the imperative has been heightened as we return to our full range of services.
In the short few weeks the doors have reopened at Dental as anything, we’ve noticed a concerning number of elderly patients whose oral health has deteriorated significantly during the lockdown period. Even those who are in care have presented with noticeable changes in gum health and condition of teeth.
With elderly parents myself, I am acutely aware of how age has impacted on both their mobility and their general health. And like many people with elderly loved ones, unfortunately, there was a limit to what I could do while restrictions were in place.
COVID and the elderly
So what can we do?
First, it’s vitally important to recognise the need to support our older patients. If you have parents you provide care for in any capacity, it’s essential to acknowledge that timely, quality dental care is a must.
Notwithstanding the recent COVID situation, It’s also helpful to understand the broader context for this care. As dental health has improved progressively since the second half of the last century, more people are retaining more teeth. However as people age, and their ability to self-manage reduces due to physical and cognitive impairment, their capacity to maintain a high level of oral health care can diminish too.
Coupled with other health challenges, such as cancer, heart disease, diabetes and periods of time in hospital, the oral health of elderly patients can be impacted seriously, just as we’ve seen under the COVID restrictions.
It’s a generalisation, but self-care around dental hygiene tends to fall away with older patients. We also notice the mouths of older people are more prone to disease, particularly those with cognitive impairment caused by Alzheimer’s and dementia.
Other examples of issues facing elderly patients (as cited by the South Australian government) include:
- Oral pain and reduced bite and chew function can reduce the amount of food eaten and lead to weight loss.
- Oral pain can affect mood and general disposition. For those suffering with dementia their capacity to let someone know about their pain is also diminished.
- Halitosis (bad breath) can affect confidence and a person’s willingness to connect with others.
Whether it’s through a decline in function or enthusiasm, the net effect is oral health pays the price.
In turn, because of the links between oral health and general health, oral conditions associated with teeth, gums and dentures may emerge along with heart disease, stroke and diabetes. Aspiration pneumonia is reported as a major cause of morbidity and mortality for older people in hospital and aged care facilities.
In addition to the dental treatments which address issues among our elderly cohort, there are logistical issues to consider too.
Getting to the dentist: making it easier for elderly patients
We need to think about how to make access to dental practices easier too. Practical measures such as eliminating the needs for stairs with chair lifts and elevators, and spacier treatment rooms are now legitimate considerations in the way a practice is laid out.
At Dental as anything, we are well and truly on board with this concept. When redesigning our practice a couple of years ago, we intentionally made our treatment rooms more accessible for our elderly patients, including those in wheelchairs and those who need walking assistance.
We also installed a chairlift, removing the need for a difficult climb up stairs to our dental practice in Helensvale. This has meant we’re able to keep seeing many of our patients – a number of whom have been patients for two or three decades. Without this continuity of professional care, we know our patients’ health can suffer.
Dental care tips for the elderly (and those caring for them)
Dental care for the elderly is based on the sound principles of oral health management at any stage of life:
- Brushing morning and night
- Flossing regularly
- Using fluoride toothpaste to clean natural teeth
- Cleaning dentures with a denture brush and mild soap, rinse with water, and remove overnight
- Using a soft brush on teeth, gums and tongue
- Drinking water
- Reducing or avoiding sugar.
I understand that in many cases, adult children will become involved in the oral and general health care of their elderly parents, just as I’ve done.
It can be a challenging time, especially as we emerge into a new world post-COVID, but we want our patient community to know we are here for them.
If you would like to discuss the options for ongoing dental care for an elderly parent, family member or friend, please reach out to us. We understand the challenges and will work together with you to find solutions that work for you and your loved one.
Together with the Dental as anything team, Dr Mark Miller has been caring for the local Helensvale and broader Gold Coast community for over thirty years. With a kind and understanding heart, he takes a thoughtful approach to treating the elderly members of the Dental as anything patient community. Book a time to discuss your needs today. (07) 5573-0188 or email us on firstname.lastname@example.org.