Nothing to smile about

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John O'Connor
John O'Connor

A friend who happens to be a dentist once regularly saw nursing home residents.

During these calls, he would examine patients and make arrangements for them to visit his dental office, should the need arise. But he stopped doing this about two years ago. Why? The hassle just wasn't worth it.

One reason: Many patients had broken teeth that required a large buildup and a crown. But family members were often reluctant to pay, or even chip in.

I was reminded of his frustration when I saw a recent report in The New York Times that calls poor dental hygiene in nursing homes “an epidemic.” As challenges go, fixing this problem might be more difficult than, well, pulling teeth.

The paper of record cited a 2006 study done at five New York facilities. There, investigators found that a mere 16% of residents received proper oral healthcare. Among the patients who did, the average time spent brushing teeth was a less-than-rigorous 16 seconds. 

Yes, federal regulations do require staff to help brush a resident's teeth when necessary. But that can be easier said than done. That's especially the case when a resident has dementia, or simply doesn't want another person helping with oral care.

Sadly, residents who neglect their teeth face more than additional pain. New studies suggest that the problem may trigger pneumonia, one of the leading causes of nursing home deaths.

So what's to be done? I believe that you can't solve all of society's woes by throwing money at them. But I've also seen that when needed funds are unavailable, problems tend to fester. And that's sort of where we are with dental care in senior living. 

Yes, more seniors doing a better job of taking care of their teeth would be a great start. Aides adopting a more forceful stance might help reduce gum disease and cavities. But until dentists have a larger fiscal incentive, it's probably not likely they'll be flocking to facilities any time soon to fix problems. In other words, the epidemic will likely get worse.

That may be good news for the nation's puree manufacturers. But it's not so good for anyone else.