Elderly people may have access to dental care in their residential aged care facility, thanks to a partnership between Central Coast NSW Medicare Local (CCNSWML) and the University of Newcastle (UON) to pilot a oral health program and research.
In working with aged care facilities across the Central Coast, CCNSWML had also highlighted the need for work in this area, when a chance meeting with Janet Wallace, UON Central Coast Oral Health lecturer and PhD candidate, formed the basis of the initiative by CCNSWML to provide a $100,000 grant to facilitate the ‘Senior Smiles’ program that will see a qualified dental hygienist work in five aged care facilities across the region, for a period of 12 months.
“The grant will be used to set up a new model of oral health care for our most frail and vulnerable elderly residents. It is hoped that the research will lead to a change in policy and result in a dental hygienist working in all residential aged care facilities across Australia,” Ms Wallace said.
The ‘Senior Smiles’ hygienist will be supported by the UON Oral Health students, who will gain vital practical skills as part of their degree program, while providing elderly residents with oral health assessments, individual oral care plans and referrals for dental treatment where necessary. The nursing home staff will also receive education on the importance of tooth, denture and mouth care and the hygienist will help to develop promotional materials to encourage a greater focus on dental health in nursing homes.
“Dental health issues can have a profound impact on the quality of life of residents living in aged care facilities, especially if they have Dementia or Alzheimers disease and are unable to let their carers or loved ones know that they are in pain and discomfort,” Ms Wallace said.
“Poor oral health can contribute to negative behaviour in older people with cognitive impairment and research shows that if left untreated oral health issues can have a severe impact on the overall health of these vulnerable elderly.”
For the last five years, final year UON Bachelor of Oral Health students have been providing dental hygiene services at residential aged care facilities across the Central Coast, with a record number of 21 centres expected to take part in the program in 2014.
Kara Turner from Narara is one of the students who has benefited from putting the theory learned at university, into practise, in a residential care setting.
“The tools I have learned during the placement have given me the confidence to know how to work with vulnerable patients, like the elderly, and how to overcome communication issues to achieve the best outcome for the patient.”
Best friends Jessie Anderson, 92 and Marcia Bannister, 90 are residents of Uniting Care’s Starrett Lodge at Warnervale, who have their oral health assessed by UON students, and will benefit from the Senior Smiles program.
Both say they had little access to dentists when they were younger and agree that the service provided by the UON students has made a difference to their sense of wellbeing.
“Since the students have been coming, I have learned that you need to use soap, not toothpaste, on your dentures if you want them to look their best. If I can learn something new at 92 after a lifetime of taking care of my teeth, then the program should be made available to all nursing home residents,” Mrs Anderson said.