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Aged care oral health and hygiene standards under the spotlight

Oral health and hygiene standards in aged care have been under the spotlight again recently, after a disturbing incident of an elderly woman with maggots in her mouth was reported in New South Wales earlier this month.

Research shows many links between poor oral health and poor general health in older people (Source: Shutterstock)

Jayne Carter’s mother Shirley was residing in an aged care facility in Port Stephens, NSW when nursing staff reportedly found maggots in her mouth, a day before she passed away.

Port Stephens MP Kate Washington commented on the incident, criticising the government for trying to remove registered nurses from aged care facilities.

Senior Lecturer in Oral Health at the University Of Newcastle School Of Health Sciences Dr Janet Wallace says oral health care is a challenging issue in residential aged care facilities, as problems often start as something minor which is overlooked, before developing into conditions that can dramatically impact residents’ quality of life.

“The issue here is that residential aged care facilities require preventive oral health programs such as 'Senior Smiles' to provide an oral health focus in facilities,” Dr Wallace says. 

“It's not good enough to treat emergencies by finding a dentist for a resident who is in pain or needs a tooth extracted – there needs to be an embedded preventive oral health model of care in all [facilities] to provide oral health risk assessments, care plans, assistance with brushing and cleaning dentures and established referral pathways for residents to access dentists in the community and onsite.

“Many attempts have been made to train staff to manage oral health needs and they haven't worked – we need qualified dental hygienists and oral health therapists working in aged care facilities providing care for the residents and liaising with other staff members to provide holistic care for the residents.”

Dr Wallace was instrumental in establishing the University of Newcastle’s Senior Smiles program, an exploratory study and care model in which aged care facilities employ preventative oral health practitioners, dental hygienists and oral health therapists in an effort to improve resident’s general health.

Oral health conditions that are often found in older people include periodontal disease, dental caries, xerostomia (dry mouth), candidiasis (thrush), oral cancer, denture stomatitis, dental abscesses.

Dr Wallace says oral health requires specific funding allocated to personal care for older people living in aged care facilities.

“We need to consider oral health as part of general health,” she says.

“There are many links between poor oral health and poor general health, including diabetes, heart disease, dementia and aspiration pneumonia.”

Chief Executive for the Council of the Ageing (COTA) Australia Ian Yates expressed his disappointment upon the release of the Budget this month that more was not done to address the huge issued still facing older people in the area of oral health.


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