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Poor Oral Health in Nursing Homes

  • December 14, 2022
  • kbaattorneystg
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When dealing with the subject of nursing home residents’ health, perhaps one of the most overlooked issues is the matter of oral hygiene. While it is important for elderly residents to get frequent baths and shampoos, regular tooth brushing and dental care can lead to a healthier life for nursing home patients.

Nursing Homes Fail to Monitor Residents’ Oral Health

Oral health isn’t usually considered when the general public is considering forms of nursing home neglect. However, many nursing home residents are currently suffering from serious dental problems, because their teeth are not brushed daily and they are not seen by a dentist regularly. It is widely known that preventive care in dentistry can help stem the tide of future maladies; however, many elderly people aren’t even given a dental visit when serious, painful oral issues arise, much less getting any preventive care.

Within the scope of a nursing home’s obligation of duty to its residents is the responsibility to see that all individuals receive the proper care for their gums, teeth, cheeks, and lips. Unfortunately, the challenges faced by staff members when trying to perform this duty often cause some employees to simply let this task go unattended. For example, an elderly patient may refuse to fully cooperate, so a staff member who doesn’t see a high priority in dental hygiene may just back away from the duty and move on to something else.

The lack of proper dental care for nursing home residents can be directly linked to disease and pain, including malnutrition and gingivitis. When an elderly person’s teeth or gums hurt, they are less likely to want to chew and eat.

Additionally, a serious problem can arise when bacteria travels from an individual’s mouth down into the lungs. The bacteria can exacerbate an existing chronic condition like emphysema, or it can directly be the cause of a very serious case of pneumonia. There have been suggestions that some bacterial chest infections may be the result of fine droplets from the mouth and throat being breathed into the lungs.

According to Yale University School of Medicine’s Dr. Samit Joshi, he found that bacterial changes in the mouth took place before pneumonia developed. He concluded that his study “suggests that changes in oral bacteria play a role in the risk for developing pneumonia.”

Seniors Experiencing Declining Oral Health

As a person ages, oral health naturally deteriorates. A number of factors put nursing home residents at a greater risk of developing a dental illness. A major factor among elderly residents is dementia.

According to the Alzheimer’s Association, it is estimated that more than 50 percent of all nursing home residents have some form of cognitive impairment such as dementia or Alzheimer’s. These types of mental health conditions make it almost impossible for affected residents to take care of their own dental hygiene. It also makes it very difficult for staff members to brush and tend to residents’ teeth and gums adequately.

Further complicating the issue of poor oral health in elderly residents are the medicines they take. Many of the drugs cause dehydration and dry mouth as side effects. The painful cracks that develop on their tongues and lips can lead to an increased chance of infection. In addition, chewing and swallowing food becomes much more difficult with a dry mouth.

Because of poor mental health or physical limitations, many nursing home residents simply cannot perform routine oral care. In these cases, staff members must be relied upon to carry out the necessary duties for good dental health of such residents.

Struggling Nursing Home Staff

When elderly patients wear dentures, the task of caring for their teeth is somewhat easy for nursing home employees, because the teeth can be removed from the patients’ mouths before tackling the job of brushing. However, modern dentistry methods now mean that a greater number of elderly folks who enter nursing homes are doing so with their own set of teeth. If any of these seniors have dementia, along with their own teeth, the level of difficulty in brushing those teeth elevates drastically. Staff members may find themselves with resistant, uncooperative residents on their hands in such cases.

In some instances, though, certain staff members may simply see other duties as more important or more urgent than dental care for residents. Employees may also be running out of time to complete all necessary tasks, or may not have the proper training to care for the dental hygiene of residents with swallowing disorders.

Improving Nursing Home Dental Hygiene

One can clearly see that improvement is needed in having well-structured oral hygiene programs in the country’s nursing homes. But how?

Many residents in nursing homes don’t get the daily oral care they need. Some might feel from this that oral health care is not considered a priority in long-term care facilities for the elderly.

Staff members, perhaps, should begin to take an active role in monitoring each resident’s oral health regularly, so that family members can be informed when a trip to the dentist is needed. In addition, training in the area of handling difficult patients could certainly be an asset. Major strides need to be taken to improve dental hygiene practices for the elderly in nursing homes.

If your loved one becomes a victim of nursing home abuse, contact KBA Attorneys to learn how you can win compensation and hold the responsible parties accountable. Our nursing home abuse lawyers have years of combined experience in handling these types of cases.


CDC. “Oral Health for Older Americans”, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, https://www.cdc.gov/oralhealth/basics/adult-oral-health/adult_older.htm. Accessed October 24, 2019.

Nidhi K. Gulati. “Overcoming Oral Hygiene Challenges in the Nursing Home”, Caring for the Ages, https://www.caringfortheages.com/article/S1526-4114(17)30323-2/fulltext. Accessed October 24, 2019.

Mayo Clinic Staff. “Oral health: A window to your overall health”, Mayo Clinic, https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/adult-health/in-depth/dental/art-20047475. Accessed October 24, 2019.