Sugar, bad diets and a lack of dental care are having a severe impact on nursing home patients across the country.

Some are having up to 20 teeth extracted, according to the Irish Dental Association (IDA).

Dr Anne Twomey, vice president of the IDA, said the situation is further exacerbated by a ‘culture of giving gifts of sweets and soft drinks’ while patients fail to address their dental needs.

She commented: ‘Patients who’ve kept their own teeth into old age can lose them in as little as three months. Very often the situation has reached crisis proportions by the time I’m called in and I have to take out 15 to 20 teeth over a short period of time.

‘Although these patients are among our most vulnerable citizens with limited control over their daily lives, they have little or no access to oral hygiene and preventive measures. For example, I came across a case where a woman hadn’t had her teeth brushed in two years.’

The role of the hygienist

Dr Grace Kelly argued for more accessible dental services for the elderly two years ago at the Irish Dental Hygienists Association (IDHA) Annual Winter Conference. Dr Kelly believes dental hygienists play an integral role in oral health for the elderly, especially in the nursing home.

‘We need to start thinking laterally,’ she said, ‘thinking about neck mobility, chair posture, toothbrush grip, wheelchair access, mobility impairment, communication problems.

‘The quality of life for elderly people because of bad oral health is incredibly poor. Some have a poor self-image because of dentures and won’t leave the house. Some can’t get drive or get taxis and struggle with dental anxiety and communication problems, but they fiercely independent. How can they then go to the dentist?’

Three-pronged approach

Dr Twomey called for an urgent ‘three-pronged approach’, adding that health professionals should be obliged to involve a dentist in patient care.

‘These patients did not reach old age with their original teeth on a high-sugar diet,’ she said. ‘As well as carefully monitoring the intake of high-sugar food supplements, family and carers should be encouraged to provide low-sugar treats. Patients’ bedrooms often resemble a sweet shop and this will require a cultural change.’