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Serving older adults in the dental chair focus of collaboration

June 13, 2017

By Michelle Manchir

Dr. Steve Shuman's students at the University of Minnesota School of Dentistry might recognize a familiar refrain from their professor who teaches about oral health for older adults.


Dr. Shuman
"I tell the dental students, with few exceptions, 'You're all going to be geriatric dentists whether you like it or not," said Dr. Shuman, an associate professor in the university's department of primary dental care who also oversees the school's Oral Health Services for Older Adults Program.

With older adults keeping their natural teeth longer and 10,000 baby boomers turning 65 every day, said Dr. Shuman, dentists must consider the needs and challenges facing this demographic and how to deliver appropriate oral health care to them.

With this need in mind, The Gerontological Society of America — an interdisciplinary organization of more than 5,500 professionals working in aging research, education and practice — launched last year its first oral health initiative titled Oral Health: An Essential Element of Healthy Aging. Dr. Shuman is serving as the chair of the society's oral health workgroup. The initiative is supported by GlaxoSmithKline Consumer Healthcare.

The essential goal of the initiative, said Karen Tracy, The Gerontological Society of America's director of strategic alliances and communications, is to foster "oral health champions across all disciplines."

"We will identify solutions and collaborate with other stakeholders to improve the oral health care of older adults," said Ms. Tracy. "The Gerontological Society of America will promote improved oral and general health and quality of life outcomes in older adults by focusing all members of the health care team — for example, medicine, dentistry, nursing, pharmacy, social work and other professions — on whole-person, interprofessional care that recognizes the inherent connection between oral and systemic health. We also want to ensure that this approach is valued in the health care system."

One of the key objectives, Dr. Shuman said, is to compile and organize resources for health care professionals. He pointed to The Gerontological Society of America's oral health website, Geron.org/OralHealth, where dental professionals can find references and reports related to best practices, statistics and trends associated with oral health in an older adult population.

The work group's first publication, "What's Hot: Oral Health: An Essential Element of Healthy Aging" was released in March. Later this year, the group is expected to post on the website a whitepaper discussing potential solutions to improving oral health in older populations. The information will be based on The Gerontological Society of America's national forum on oral health and aging that occurred in March in Washington, D.C., which included participation by Dr. Kathleen T. O'Loughlin, ADA executive director, and also representatives from the National Institutes of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, among other groups.

Collaboration among all health professionals is a key component of the initiative, Dr. Shuman said. Many older patients can present challenges because of special needs, disabilities or complicated medication regimens, demanding a more integrated approach among health care providers to provide the best care, he said.

"Thoughtful input on oral health-related concerns shouldn't just be coming from dentists and the dental team but also physicians, pharmacists and nurses and other professionals," said Dr. Shuman, who added that oral health literacy and teaching good oral health home-care to patients also comes in to play.

Citing a quotation from a former U.S. surgeon general, Dr. Shuman said, "You can't be healthy without good oral health."

For more information about GSA's initiative and for resources related to care for older adults, visit Geron.org/OralHealth. To get involved with the workgroup or with The Gerontological Society of America, contact Ms. Tracy by email at ktracy@geron.org.
 
The ADA National Elder Care Advisory Committee, one of five advisory committees that offer technical assistance and guidance on geriatrics and special needs to the ADA Council on Advocacy for Access and Prevention, meets annually to address disparities in oral health, access to care, new oral health science and oral health benefits for older adults in Medicare and Medicaid. For more information about the committee's work, email Dr. Steve Geiermann, senior manager of community oral health infrastructure and capacity for the ADA Council on Advocacy for Access and Prevention, at geiermanns@ada.org.

Dentists can also direct patients to the ADA's consumer website, MouthHealthy.org, for science-based information on hygiene for all stages of life.