No Joke: Check Teeth if Parents Are in Nursing Homes

Want to know the best way to tell whether your parent in a nursing home is doing well?  Open his mouth.

A shocking number of nursing home residents rarely if ever have their teeth looked at, according to Catherine Saint Louis, and though you might think it's just teeth, infection in gums from poor dental hygiene can lead to life-threatening illnesses like pneumonia, one of the number-one killers of those living in nursing homes.

"In nursing homes across the country, residents. . . are plagued by cavities, gum disease and cracked teeth, in part because their mouths are not kept clean," Saint Louis writes. And nursing home personnel, spending most of their time helping residents to the toilet, being fed, or repositioned in bed, just don't have much to spend on dental hygiene, even just brushing teeth.

“I always say you can measure quality in a nursing home by looking in people’s mouths, because it’s one of the last things to be taken care of,” Dr. Judith A. Jones, chairwoman of the department of general dentistry at Boston University told Saint Louis. “Aides change someone’s Depends, change a catheter or turn somebody every few hours, but teeth often don’t get brushed twice a day.”

She adds that nearly two-thirds of those who stay in a nursing home long term have dementia, "and many resist oral care, clenching their mouth shut or even trying to hit aides." The National Institutes of Health is financing research to address such resistance among nursing home residents with dementia.

And tooth decay leads to cavities, gum disease, and other conditions that can lead to excruciating pain for residents who may not always be able to ask personnel for help. A 2006 study of five facilities in upstate New York found only 16 percent of residents received any oral care at all, Saint Louis recounts. "Among those who did, average tooth brushing time was 16 seconds." Supplies like toothbrushes were scarce, the report said.

And that's just New York. Sadly, this is going on in every state.  So what should you do?  When you visit, look in your parent's mouth.  If you see any discolorations or obvious breaks on a tooth, gums that are red or swollen, or if your parent seems to be in pain, let the home know immediately that he needs to see a dentist.  Staying on top of this is the best thing you can do for your loved one.

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