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Dental Care for Older Adults

Topic 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. These may include:

  • Caring for dentures.
  • Having trouble holding a toothbrush.
  • Having gum disease.
  • Having tooth decay on the roots of teeth.
  • Replacing missing teeth and broken fillings.

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

Dentures

Dentures are "false teeth." They can replace all the teeth in your mouth (complete denture) or only some of them (partial denture). If you need dentures, your dentist will measure your mouth and take impressions to create them.

You should care for your dentures as you would your teeth. It's also important to care for your gums. You or your caregiver should brush your gums, tongue, and the roof of your mouth every day with a soft-bristled brush before you put in your dentures. See your dentist on a regular basis.

To care for dentures:

  • Stand over a folded towel or bowl of water when you or your caregiver takes the dentures out. This way if you drop them, they will not break.
  • Store dentures in lukewarm water or denture-cleaning liquid overnight. Do not put them in hot water, and do not let them dry out.
  • Replace dentures about every 5 years. Using dentures daily "wears them out," and you will need to replace them.
  • Clean dentures every day. Cleaning helps prevent stains and helps the mouth stay healthy.
    • Rinse the dentures to remove any loose food.
    • Wet the brush, and brush the dentures with a denture cleanser such as Polident or Efferdent. Do not brush with toothpaste. It can scratch the dentures. You or your caregiver may be able to use hand soap or mild dishwashing liquid. Do not use household cleansers or bleach.
    • Brush every surface gently to avoid damage. Use a brush designed for cleaning dentures or a toothbrush with soft bristles.
  • Remember to take out the dentures at night. This lowers the risk of choking if the dentures become loose.

To care for teeth and gums:

  • Look at the gums daily before you put in the dentures. Let red, swollen gums heal before putting in the dentures again. If the redness does not go away in a few days, call the dentist. White patches on the inside of the cheeks could also mean the dentures aren't fitting well.
  • Leave the dentures out at least 6 hours every day. The mouth heals more slowly with age and needs time to recover from the friction of wearing dentures.
  • Don't put up with dentures that are too big, that click when you eat, or that don't feel good. It takes time to get used to dentures. But if they are still giving you trouble after the first few weeks, talk to your dentist about fitting them again. Don't try to "fix" your dentures yourself.

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:

  • Use 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 specially designed toothbrushes, toothpaste dispensers, and floss holders.

Your doctor may recommend a soft-bristle toothbrush if you or 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 you or the person you care for has sensitive teeth.

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 medicines you are taking.
  • Eat a balanced diet that includes whole grains, vegetables, and fruits, and that is low in saturated fat and sodium. Good nutrition is vital to maintaining healthy gums and avoiding tooth decay.
  • Avoid using 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 reducing fees. Contact your area's public health offices or social services for information about dental care in your community.

Related Information

Credits

By Healthwise Staff
Primary Medical Reviewer E. Gregory Thompson, MD - Internal Medicine
Specialist Medical Reviewer Arden Christen, DDS, MSD, MA, FACD - Dentistry
Current as of January 7, 2013

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