Dying From Dirty Teeth Stories
No Elder Should Lose Their Smile or Suffer or Die from Dirty Teeth
Gladys became so physically ill with Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD), at age 63, she needed to move into a nursing home environment. As Gladys’s oral health deteriorated, so did her lung health, or maybe it was vice versa, but the two conditions were definitely related. When the mouth is infected, the bacteria that cause the infection can easily be transferred into the lungs. This can compromise the health of the lungs and result in lung infections such as pneumonia. Couple this with lungs that do not work well due to COPD and the result can be deadly. Eventually Gladys’s lung infections occurred closer and closer together. Each infection became harder and harder to resolve. The prescribed antibiotics got stronger and stronger. Eventually nothing more could be done, and Gladys lost her life to COPD. Or did she die from dirty teeth?
Ida broke her leg when she was 102 years old. It was logical to think this may be the beginning of the end of her life. Situations like this can often bring that on. But she recovered after 3 months of therapy. Shortly after that Ida contracted double pneumonia and she wasn’t expected to make it, but she did. The antibiotics however had managed to kill off the good bacteria in her mouth and let the yeast take over. A yeast infection in the mouth is called thrush. Ida was in such pain she could not eat. She died of starvation. Or was it from the condition of her mouth?
Helen was placed in a nursing home. She was able to floss and brush her teeth, and was under the care of the nursing team and the nursing home dentist. She never had trouble with her teeth or gums. As her medications increased, her mouth became more and more dry. There are over 400 prescription drugs that cause dry mouth and she was on approximately seven of them. In fact, even though she was legally blind and her body did not work well enough to let her walk, her biggest complaint was her dry mouth! The care team offered what they knew to address the problem, but it was not enough.
When there is not enough saliva to control the bacteria in the mouth, teeth get cavities, and cavities need to be filled by a dentist. Helen was on Medicare. There are very few dentists who take this benefit for payment of services. As a result, the cavities were not filled. When teeth have cavities that are not filled, they break. As her teeth broke, her daughter would take her out to a private dentist for care, because a broken tooth was an emergency. Recommended treatment was always removal of the tooth in question. This was a vicious cycle, and one that no one, not the care team or the dentist, had any answers to. As a result, in the two short years Helen spent in the facility, she had lost 60% of the teeth she had managed to keep healthy for 90 years. She, like Gladys and Ida, had become a victim of our broken system of nursing home oral care and suffered needlessly from dental disease. Helen went to her final resting place with no front teeth, and cavities in the teeth that remained. While Helen did not die from dirty teeth, her dirty teeth certainly affected her quality of life. Can a poor quality of life decrease the will to live?