How to help seniors save their smiles

If you care for elderly parents or other senior adults, make sure their oral health is at the top of your list. A regular oral health routine that includes brushing, flossing and preventive care not only helps seniors protect their teeth and gums but can also help maintain their overall health and quality of life. For instance, poor dental health has been linked to heart disease and dementia, among other conditions.

Oral health problems in adults 65+

Among people 65 years old or older, certain dental conditions are widespread: 

Gum disease

Dry mouth

Untreated tooth decay

Complete tooth loss

  • Dry mouth. Thirty percent suffer from dry mouth, and this increases to 40% for people 80 and older. Dry mouth can cause inflammation and increase the risk of cavities and gum disease.
  • Tooth decay. Untreated tooth decay affects 20% of people 65 or older.
  • Tooth loss. Nearly 20% have lost all their teeth, and this increases to 26% for people age 75 and older.
  • Gum disease. Almost two-thirds have gum disease. This disease affects not only the gums but can also destroy the bones and the ligaments that support teeth.
  • Oral cancer. Oral cancer is most prevalent in older adults. The median age of people diagnosed with the disease is 64. 

These conditions can become more common in elderly people as a result of health conditions such as diabetes and the side effects of medications. Other age-related conditions, such as cognitive impairment, dementia, vision loss and loss of mobility, can make it difficult for older adults to maintain an oral heath routine.

What can I do to help?

Help older adults protect their oral health by making sure that they do the following:

  • Brush twice and floss once daily
  • Maintain a balanced diet
  • Drink plenty of water
  • Limit snacks and sugary sweets
  • Rinse dentures after each meal and remove and clean them daily

What if my elderly relative lives in an assisted living facility or skilled nursing home?

You might assume that residents of assisted living facilities would automatically receive adequate, if not excellent, dental care. However, elderly people who live in these facilities are actually at risk for poor oral health, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

If your loved one lives in an assisted living facility, here are some steps you can take to ensure quality dental care.

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    Ask whether there’s a dentist or trained dental professional on site.

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    Find out how often residents get a professional dental exam and cleaning.

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    Ask what’s included in the daily oral health routine — including denture care — and what policies ensure residents follow this routine.

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    Confirm that someone on the care staff helps your loved one maintain proper oral health if your loved one can’t do so independently.

What else can I do?

Preventive care is key. Make sure the person you care for is scheduled for regular visits to the dentist. This should include:

  • Exams to check for signs of oral cancer, such as sores, swelling, white or red patches and changes to the lips, tongue and throat
  • Preventive procedures, such as annual x-rays
  • Professional cleanings to remove plaque and tartar and help prevent dental issues such as cavities and gum disease

If you notice that the person you care for has tooth decay or other oral health problems, contact a dentist immediately.

And don’t forget dental coverage

When people retire from their jobs, they often lose the dental coverage they had as part of their benefits package. And while your parent or loved one may have Medicare, keep in mind that Original Medicare and Medigap don’t provide dental coverage. In fact, 47% of Medicare beneficiaries have no dental coverage at all.

If your loved one doesn’t have dental insurance, consider purchasing a plan. Most dental plans cover 100% of preventive care, which can diagnose problems and prevent them from getting worse. Coverage can also help reduce the cost of minor and major dental procedures.

Learn more about the advantages of dental coverage for seniors and Delta Dental’s individual dental plan options.

COVID-19 pandemic challenges and solutions


The current pandemic has created a number of oral health challenges for seniors. Here are a few of the most common ones and what you can do to address them.


Pandemic-related dental health issues for seniors:

  • Reduced access. The pandemic forced many dentist offices to close. Even though most have reopened, seniors — who face an increased risk from COVID-19 — may be reluctant to return.
  • Reduced care. In long-term care facilities, daily oral care routines were sometimes put on hold as COVID-19 required staff to provide urgent care to those affected. Fear of contracting the disease also created staffing shortages. More than 80% of dentists trying to hire dental hygienists and assistants are having difficulty doing so, according to a recent poll from the ADA Health Policy Institute.
  • Psychosocial problems. The loneliness, anxiety and depression caused by shelter-at-home orders could worsen oral health among older Americans.


Effective solutions for caregivers:

  • Teledentistry. For many caregivers, teledentistry is an increasingly effective solution for maintaining their loved one’s dental health care during the pandemic. Because of office shutdowns and reluctance from some patients to return to dental offices, many dentists have begun to offer teledentistry services for their patients, including guided oral care for caregivers. Some long-term care facility staffs have also been trained to take images of residents’ mouths for dentists to evaluate remotely.
  • Mobile dentistry. Mobile dental care enables dentist to offer on-site dental services with the help of a mobile dental clinic. This service can reduce the need to transport at-risk seniors, and helps reduce potential stress and confusion caused by moving those with dementia. With the latest mobile equipment, dentists can perform simple extractions, restorative work and more efficiently. For added safety, mobile dental units often use ultraviolet light and filters to remove pathogens from the air.