Aging & Dental Health

How to Make Sure an Elderly Loved One Gets Needed Care

A condensed version of this article by Dr. Allen Wong, DDS, EdD, Professor in the Department of Dental Practice, Director of the AEGD Residency Program, and Director of the Hospital Dentistry Program at the University of the Pacific. Dr. Wong is also a contributor for Dear Doctor Dentistry & Oral Health.

Taking care of one’s teeth and gums is as important for senior citizens as it is for youngsters—if not more so. After all, the state of an elderly person’s oral health can have a significant bearing on quality of life: how comfortably he or she can eat, speak, and smile. Poor oral health can lead to tooth decay and periodontal (gum) disease. Untreated periodontal disease can worsen chronic health conditions such as heart disease, arthritis and diabetes. At the same time, maintaining oral health as we age presents its own special challenges. That’s why it is often important for the grown children of older adults to take an active role in seeing to their parents’ needs in this crucial area.

senior brushing teeth

Changes, Challenges and Solutions

It is not a given that we must lose our teeth in old age; properly cared for, our teeth should last as long as we do. Yet maintaining effective oral hygiene can get harder. Arthritis, for example, can make brushing and flossing difficult.

  • Sometimes using a power (electric) toothbrush, with its larger handle, is easier.
  • Placing a tennis ball or bike handle grip on a regular toothbrush to make it more comfortable to hold.
  • Pre-loaded floss holders and water irrigation devices (water flossers), can also be very helpful.

Older Americans are taking more medications than ever, so we are seeing more tooth decay from the side effects of a dry mouth. In addition, the aging population can develop problems with digestion from mild heartburn to gastric reflux or a condition known as Gastric Esophageal Reflux Disease (GERD). In the case of digestive problems, stomach acids can end up in the mouth and erode the tooth structure. Treatment of gastric reflux may also decrease acidity in the mouth.

Treating tooth decay in older adults can be complicated by the fact that many already have had significant dental work—fillings, crowns, bridges, etc. Regular dental checkups provide an important safeguard against this. By modifying or controlling known risk factors, like increasing hydration and adding topical fluoride (in the form of toothpaste, mouth rinses or professionally applied varnishes), a dental team can help you to keep your teeth longer.

Those wearing removable dentures and partial dentures should have the appliances regularly checked for fit. Appliances that press on the tissues of the mouth may cause bone and gum changes known as “resorption” in which tissues shrink. Once there is bone loss, the prostheses (dentures) become less stable and can actually increase the bone loss by exerting too much pressure. The dentures can be adjusted to help with the stability of the appliances and reduce premature bone loss.

How You Can Help

The best way to make sure elderly loved ones are getting needed oral health care is to offer to take them to the dentist if they haven’t been in the last six months or longer. Make sure you bring along a list of all medications (prescription or over-the-counter) and herbal/dietary supplements they are taking, and be prepared to detail all of their health conditions and allergies. Bring along any dentures they own, even if they don’t always wear them.

Compassionate Care

Should the dentist determine that the aging person you are caring for needs help with the actual tasks of brushing and flossing, you will have some decisions to make. Also, recognize that it may be hard for the recipients of your care to accept help graciously, even when it is truly appreciated. After all, it represents a certain loss of independence—something that’s difficult for anyone to accept.

Seniors At Home caregivers assist older adults in personal care and hygiene, always with dignity and respect. If you or a loved one needs assistance, Seniors At Home offers a free consultation to assess your needs and offer solutions. Call us at 415-449-3700 or contact us online.

Seniors At Home is a division of Jewish Family and Children’s Services, a trusted nonprofit institution that has been providing care since 1850. Our services are funded by fees and by donations for those who cannot afford the full cost of care for these critical services.

If you would like to make a donation, please contact Barbara Farber at or 415-449-3858, or give online.