Why don’t the elderly visit the dentist?

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In their own words: What stops elderly people visiting the dentist?

First-hand accounts from elderly people have revealed what is really getting in the way of them making regular visits to the dentist. In a series of focus groups involving people over 65 years old, researchers discovered exactly what barriers they face when it comes to looking after their teeth [1].

The most common major barriers which were identified included anxiety, poor general health, cost and the physical aspect of being unable to travel to a dentist.
Many of those interviewed described that as they aged they found brushing their teeth difficult due to forgetfulness, with one respondent said: “You become shaky and have bad sight; you don’t care in the same way as you get older.”

Complications regarding access and ill health were also major issues identified. A participant added: “You have to book transport or ask someone to drive. It gets complicated with everything... there are a lot of factors to take into account.” While another said: “I’ve been so ill that I haven’t got around to it”.
Others revealed they were still affected by dental anxiety, as one person confessed: “I’ve been scared of the dentist my whole life, I was ready to faint I was petrified”.

Cost was also a major barrier identified by many, as another claimed: “I can’t afford to go to the dentist. I have pain sometimes and have had for several months, but it’s so expensive.”

While others were more dismissive of dental care altogether: “If you’re going to die soon, you don’t want to spend more money on it,” one group member added.

Some of those questioned even said they did not see any benefits of maintaining oral health in their old age, indicating that “appearance doesn’t matter”. It was mentioned by a few people that they did receive help from carers but also said that they often lacked time to do so. With poor oral health being closely linked with increased frailty in old age, as well as other potentially life-threatening health problems such as pneumonia, diabetes and heart disease, the UK’s leading oral health charity, the Oral Health Foundation, is looking to draw attention to the importance of oral health for elderly people.

Chief Executive of the Oral Health Foundation, Dr Nigel Carter OBE, said: “One way which would help to overcome many of the barriers identified is for dental professionals, with the support of local authorities, to provide services in care homes and in local community centres to make them more accessible and appealing.
“Dental professionals also have a key role in raising awareness of elderly people’s oral health needs; amongst their profession, with their patients and with other caregivers who can then help provide effective support. I would also like to see better provision and greater support for local authorities who will then be able to provide effective information and education for elderly people in care homes and the community as well as for carers and family members who look after them, to emphasize the importance of good oral health in the elderly.

“By using this combined approach, it would help overcome many of the barriers identified by those who are in need of help. It is upsetting to hear many of these accounts, our teeth and oral health has such a profound impact on many other aspects of our lives, not just physically but emotionally too. We now expect to keep our natural teeth our entire lives; something unheard of even a few decades ago. With the correct care and support there is no reason why this cannot be true for most of us.”

Dr Carter concluded: “Addressing elderly people’s oral health care is a very important, yet often overlooked aspect, which I believe there should be much more of a focus on as it has the potential to improve the quality of life of a huge amount of people.”

The Oral Health Foundation offers a dedicated Dental Helpline where anybody can get the help and advice they need about their oral health. This free, impartial and expert service is available 9am until 5pm Monday until Friday. You can call 01788 5398 780 or email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Reference

1] Derblom C, Hagman-Gustafsson M, Gabre P. Older people's description of factors that facilitate and impede regular dental care - a qualitative interview study. International Journal of Dental Hygiene [Internet]. 2016 [cited 29 January 2017];15(4):313-320. Available from: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/idh.12263/full 

Photo by Eberhard Grossgasteiger