Dealing with a Major Problem in Elder Hunger: Dental Needs

For many seniors around the country who still live at home, the biggest challenge in keeping from going hungry is not having the money to buy food or being able to prepare it, but being able to chew. The first of its kind, a pilot program is aimed at researching and helping fix seniors’ oral health. Being called “eye-opening,” the program is offering firsthand knowledge of what experts had only guessed at being elderly dental concerns.

Oral Health Study

The nonprofit food delivery service Citymeals-on-Wheels joined with the Columbia University College of Dental Medicine to conduct the study on seniors’ oral health. The pilot program has been funded by a $50,000 grant from the National Institutes of Health, and it involves both phone interviews in addition to dental house calls for low-income seniors. Many of the participants in the study have not seen a dentist in years, and some in decades.

Before this study, very few researchers focused on the dental health of homebound seniors, and the majority of dental research has been primarily focused on the needs of children. However, in the first phase of their study, the program found that over forty percent of the 300 participants interviewed said that they had difficulty eating and researchers believe that the actual number may be even higher.

How the Program Works

The program begins with the phone interview, which is meant to elicit basic information like what a participant can or cannot eat. This in turn informs the researchers about possible issues with nutrition and dental health. For example, a participant who says that they cannot chew meat may have a protein deficiency. The researchers also asked participants if they modify their food to make it more edible because pureeing foods can dilute the nutrition.

The home visits then allow for both a dental examination of the homebound senior in addition to direct observation of their specific challenges regarding oral care and mobility. This not only allows researchers to pinpoint the root of some hunger problems, but it also allows them to make referrals for treatment to the seniors as needed.

Highlighting Problems in Elderly Oral Care

The research being performed by the pilot program is also serving to highlight the multiple challenges that the elderly face when getting oral care. Many are unable to leave their homes without the help of others. Once out of the house, many still need help driving or getting to some form of public transportation to see a dentist for their oral needs.

Another huge barrier to elderly oral care is the accessibility of insurance. A lot of seniors lose dental coverage after they retire, and routine geriatric dental care like cleanings, fillings, and dentures are not covered well by Medicare and Medicaid, if covered at all. But even home dental care cannot be taken for granted. A lot of homebound seniors have issues with grip strength, making things like holding a toothbrush or opening bottle of toothpaste difficult.

There are also many misconceptions that seniors have regarding dental care. The researchers are using the home visits as a chance to educate seniors about their oral health and dental care. The final step in this pilot program will be to see whether the interviews and home visits had an effect, and if the seniors that participated in the program see an increase in their dental health and nutrition.

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