When thinking about the oral health of seniors in the Encino area and elsewhere, there’s much more to it than regular brushing and flossing.
Although these are both useful, even foundational, skills and activities to help one’s general dental health, people providing 24-hour care to seniors should be aware of the need for good oral health has changed and expanded in the last decade.
At Accredited Home Care we encourage our caregivers to start with basic dental hygiene when working with their clients and then go beyond this, such as making sure they follow recommendations from their dentist to brush in the morning and evenings, and if needed, between meals. A fluoride-based toothpaste is important, as is flossing at least once a day.
If someone no longer has the skills to perform these tasks anymore due to physical or mental limitations, a caregiver or home health aide can assist. Or, tools like floss sticks can be used instead of floss, which is easier to use and doesn’t require as much manual coordination.
The most vital bit of newer knowledge to be shared and experienced is how dental health is no longer considered separate from overall health.
For a long time, dentists and physicians were almost in different worlds and deliberately kept their distance from each other.
But recent studies have shown that there are definite connections between the state of your mouth and the state of your body. Problems in the teeth, gums, lips or other components can cause problems in the rest of the body.
This is often due to bacteria. Our mouths generally have all sorts of it, but much of it is reduced when we brush and floss. Bacteria that are swallowed usually goes right into the stomach and is dissolved. Saliva in the mouth also helps neutralize damaging bacteria.
However, an injury or disease can make everything more dangerous.
An open wound in the mouth, for instance, can cause these damaging bacteria to enter the bloodstream and trigger a variety of problems in the entire body. This could be as simple as a small scratch or bite that may have taken place by eating or ‘normal use’ activities.
Research into the connection between overall health and dental health continues, but there’s evidence that this bacteria in the body can be linked to:
- Heart disease. It might aggravate existing cases or trigger new cases. It also could weaken the actual heart muscle.
- Lung/breathing problems. Some of the oral bacteria is linked to respiratory diseases and other problems with the lungs, including pneumonia.
- Bacteria can also influence this disease.
- Immune diseases.
- Bone/structural problems.
- Dementias such as Alzheimer’s disease.
Some oral health conditions can also be indicators of larger health problems, including dry mouth, tooth loss, deterioration of tooth enamel (which could come from increased stomach acid or heartburn) and thrush, a fungal infection.
Certain cancers can also lead to problems in the mouth, including sores, bleeding gums and various problems with taste and texture.
This month is a good opportunity to learn more. April is Oral Head and Neck Cancer Awareness Month, an opportunity to learn about the different types of cancer that can affect people.
People can use the month to learn about screenings for possible cancers as well as risk factors. Smoking/tobacco use is a culprit but non-smokers can also be affected.
Strategies for caregivers
If you’re responsible for the care of a senior, it’s key to look for ways to make sure they are always focusing on their oral health.
This can include encouraging them to always put brushing and flossing on their list of to-do items. This way they don’t have to remember this if it’s already on a list or you or family members can remind them.
Caregivers can also offer suggestions on various methods to brush properly plus useful pointers like how often to change their toothbrush or how often to schedule a visit to the dentist for cleaning/checking/exams.
If they see a client having difficulties brushing or flossing, they can provide pointers on ways to brush better and more effectively. They may also want to reach out to occupational therapists for other suggestions, since brushing independently is an important skill for people who want to live as independently as possible. It also is something that can be re-learned if abilities and coordination are lost due to a stroke.
Caregivers can even think bigger like looking for ways to cut back sugar when planning someone’s diet, since too much sugar can cover teeth, promoting general tooth decay.
They can also contact family members and even the client’s health providers (dental and standard) to discuss new problems or observations. These individuals may be more familiar with some of their past challenges and limitations.