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NYT Exposes Overlooked Problem: Dental Health in the Nursing Home

Last week the New York Times published an important article that delves into an issue that gets little to no attention: problematic dental care among nursing home residents. The article begins by sharing an anecdote that is all too common among nursing home residents in Illinois and throughout the country….

A woman was visiting her father when she noticed that his teeth had not been brushed in quite some time. Like many senior nursing home residents, the man needed assistance with grooming tasks–it was one of the very reasons he was in the home to begin with. The adult daughter decided to brush his teeth herself. Afterwards the man began complaining about a very sharp headache. After consultation with a dentist it was discovered that one of the senior’s teeth had broken in half and become lodged in the roof of his mouth. Simple preventative care would have prevented this problem, but that care was not provided.

Chronic Problem
Unfortunately, these are not unique or rare issues. Poor dental care is a constant problem at all manner of facilities for seniors, particularly those homes with a track record of cutting corners. As the story points out, ensuring proper tooth care is frequently overlooked in the daily rush to get residents dressed, fed, helping with bathroom duties, and more.

While it may seem harmless to forget a tooth brushing occasionally, it far too often becomes a consistent oversight leading to incredibly serious problems for the resident. For one thing, broken teeth, cavities, gum disease, and other problems associated with poor dental care comes with immense pain for seniors. Anyone who has suffered through a single night with a toothache appreciates the way that these issues can be totally debilitating. No one should be forced to endure that pain and discomfort, particularly vulnerable seniors who often have little ability to deal with the problem themselves or ask for aid.

But on top of that, more and more research is coming in which verifies the far reaching medical consequences of bad dental care. For example, the NYT story points to a report issued in September of 2010 from the Journal of the American Dental Association (see here) which connected oral hygiene to pneumonia and respiratory tract infection. These two ailments are commonly associated with seniors. The researchers discovered that “there is good evidence that mechanical oral hygiene practices reduce the progression or occurrence of respiratory diseases in high-risk elderly people in nursing homes or hospitals. Mechanical oral hygiene practices may prevent the death of about one in 10 elderly residents of nursing homes from health care–associated pneumonia.”

That summary conclusion is hard to overstate: improved dental health may prevent the death of one of every ten nursing home residents. We are not only talking about toothaches, but life and death.

If you suspect that a senior resident may have suffered injury as a result of negligent caregiving of any kind–including poor oral hygiene–be sure to seek out help to hold the facility accountable.

See Other Blog Posts:

Illinois Nursing Home Cited for String of Nutrition Violations

95-Year Old Park Forest Man Dies After Confrontation with Police