Dear Abby: Nursing home residents often lack dental care

By Jeanne Phillips, SF Gate, Saturday, May 30, 2015 – Link to Original Article

Dear Abby:

My mother has Alzheimer’s. She has been in a nursing home for 10 years. She can’t verbalize that her teeth are killing her, but I can see the pain in her face and hear her grind her teeth. I asked for her to be seen by a doctor, but we have to wait at least six weeks to see one.

There is little dental care available in nursing homes. Because of improved dental care, many more people arrive in nursing homes with their teeth intact than they used to. This sounds good, but patients often refuse to allow anyone to assist them with oral hygiene. Eventually they may become too frail to withstand the stress of surgery or other treatment that comes with failing teeth.

As I understand it, not many dentists are willing to shoulder the challenge of caring for this “difficult” population or the red tape of getting paid for the care of patients in nursing homes.

It is very important to take care of our teeth as we age. Once we or our loved one enters a nursing home, we need to continue their dental hygiene to the best of our ability. We can help the overworked staff by encouraging our loved ones to brush and floss. Take them out for a checkup every six months.

Please let the public know how important this is.

– Nancy C. in West Virginia

Dear Nancy:

We now know that a healthy mouth is important for good overall health, no matter what your age.

In addition to dentists, there are now dental hygienists in many states who can provide care for people in nursing homes and home-bound patients. Some specialize in treating the developmentally disabled and “difficult” populations.

Specially licensed dental hygienists can provide services outside of the dental office in the states that allow it, and can refer the patient to a dentist for further service. In the United States, individual states determine the scope of practice for providers, which includes what types of services dental hygienists may provide in that state.

Several states are working to improve access to care — in part to meet the growing aging population who are retaining their teeth. In West Virginia, dental hygienists are permitted to deliver care in nursing homes and a variety of other settings. If you have additional questions, the American Dental Hygienists Association (www.adha.org) can provide further state-specific information on this subject.

Lucy Marie Horton