Oral health care for seniors

Dr. Chris Wyatt (left) and Dr. Angela Wong consult with patient Lai Ling Chan at the Simon K. Y. Lee Seniors Care Home.

Studies show that seniors are at risk for oral disease and the contributing factors include lack of access to dental care in long-term care facilities and prohibitive financial cost. In an effort to reverse this trend, the Faculty of Dentistry launched the “adopt a long-term care facility” initiative in 2011.

“To increase access and address oral disease, we decided to develop the first program of its kind in Canada where seniors receive free care provided by our students under close clinical supervision,” says UBC professor Chris Wyatt, a dental geriatrics expert and creator of the program. The initiative provides high quality care at no cost to residents at the Simon K.Y. Lee Seniors Care Home and Villa Cathay Care Home in Vancouver’s Chinatown.

The primary goals of the program include providing high quality dental care for at-risk seniors while also providing a dynamic learning environment for students. Wyatt explains that since seniors are the fastest-growing segment of the population, there’s a demand for dentists, dental hygienists and dental specialists to treat elderly patients – not only on the premises of their practice, but also in hospitals and care facilities.

Bridging the gaps in existing oral health care treatment for seniors has been an ongoing goal for Wyatt and faculty colleague Dr. Michael MacEntee. In the late 1990s, they established the internationally acclaimed, ELDERS (Elders Link with Dental Education, Research and Service) to fulfill this unmet need.

Although cost can be a significant barrier to oral health care, even seniors who can afford care may still face challenges since dentists may be reluctant to treat seniors who are frail or have complex health issues. Untreated dental problems in a vulnerable, at-risk population can lead to further health complications, disease or premature death.

UBC students complete rotations under the supervision of practicing dentists and UBC professors, treating seniors who may have complex medical, physical and psychological conditions, such as rheumatoid arthritis or dementia, that can make dental care challenging. By working with other health care professionals, students are better able to understand and treat seniors with these conditions.

“We want to give our dental and dental hygiene students the experience of treating vulnerable populations so they can include these patients in their practice,” says Wyatt. He says many older adults are keeping their natural teeth longer. At the Villa Cathay Care Home, for example, close to 70 per cent of the senior residents have some natural teeth compared to 60 per cent in 2002. Oral care now goes beyond keeping the residents’ dentures clean. “What we’re going to see are baby boomers who have been receiving excellent dental care throughout their life. They will expect that to continue whether it’s at their dentist’s office or at a long term care facility.”

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