Learning About Dental Care for Older Adults

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Dental care for older adults: Overview

Dental care for older people is much the same as for younger adults. But older adults do have concerns that younger adults do not. Older adults may have problems with gum disease and decay on the roots of their teeth. They may need missing teeth replaced or broken fillings fixed. Or they may have dentures that need to be cared for. Some older adults may have trouble holding a toothbrush.

You can help remind the person you are caring for to brush and floss their teeth or to clean their dentures. In some cases, you may need to do the brushing and other dental care tasks. People who have trouble using their hands or who have dementia may need this extra help.

How can you help with dental care?

Normal dental care

To keep the teeth and gums healthy:

  • Brush the teeth with fluoride toothpaste twice a day—in the morning and at night—and floss at least once a day. Plaque can quickly build up on the teeth of older adults.
  • Watch for the signs of gum disease. These signs include gums that bleed after brushing or after eating hard foods, such as apples.
  • See a dentist regularly. Many experts recommend checkups every 6 months.
  • Keep the dentist up to date on any new medications the person is taking.
  • Encourage a balanced diet that includes whole grains, vegetables, and fruits, and that is low in saturated fat and sodium.
  • Encourage the person you're caring for not to use tobacco products. They can affect dental and general health.

Many older adults have a fixed income and feel that they can't afford dental care. But most towns and cities have programs in which dentists help older adults by lowering fees. Contact your area's public health offices or social services for information about dental care in your area.

Using a toothbrush

Older adults with arthritis sometimes have trouble brushing their teeth because they can't easily hold the toothbrush. Their hands and fingers may be stiff, painful, or weak. If this is the case, you can:

  • Offer an electric toothbrush.
  • Enlarge the handle of a non-electric toothbrush by wrapping a sponge, an elastic bandage, or adhesive tape around it.
  • Push the toothbrush handle through a ball made of rubber or soft foam.
  • Make the handle longer and thicker by taping Popsicle sticks or tongue depressors to it.

You may also be able to buy special toothbrushes, toothpaste dispensers, and floss holders.

Your doctor may recommend a soft-bristle toothbrush if the person you care for bleeds easily. Bleeding can happen because of a health problem or from certain medicines.

A toothpaste for sensitive teeth may help if the person you care for has sensitive teeth.

How do you brush and floss someone's teeth?

If the person you are caring for has a hard time cleaning their teeth on their own, you may need to brush and floss their teeth for them. It may be easiest to have the person sit and face away from you, and to sit or stand behind them. That way you can steady their head against your arm as you reach around to floss and brush their teeth. Choose a place that has good lighting and is comfortable for both of you.

Before you begin, gather your supplies. You will need gloves, floss, a toothbrush, and a container to hold water if you are not near a sink. Wash and dry your hands well and put on gloves. Start by flossing:

  • Gently work a piece of floss between each of the teeth toward the gums. A plastic flossing tool may make this easier, and they are available at most drugstores.
  • Curve the floss around each tooth into a U-shape and gently slide it under the gum line.
  • Move the floss firmly up and down several times to scrape off the plaque.

After you've finished flossing, throw away the used floss and begin brushing:

  • Wet the brush and apply toothpaste.
  • Place the brush at a 45-degree angle where the teeth meet the gums. Press firmly, and move the brush in small circles over the surface of the teeth.
  • Be careful not to brush too hard. Vigorous brushing can make the gums pull away from the teeth and can scratch the tooth enamel.
  • Brush all surfaces of the teeth, on the tongue side and on the cheek side. Pay special attention to the front teeth and all surfaces of the back teeth.
  • Brush chewing surfaces with short back-and-forth strokes.

After you've finished, help the person rinse the remaining toothpaste from their mouth.

Where can you learn more?

Go to https://www.healthwise.net/patientEd

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The Health Encyclopedia contains general health information. Not all treatments or services described are covered benefits for Kaiser Permanente members or offered as services by Kaiser Permanente. For a list of covered benefits, please refer to your Evidence of Coverage or Summary Plan Description. For recommended treatments, please consult with your health care provider.