Open Wide: Elder Dental Abuse Is A Growing Problem

As the adult child of an aging parent, are you looking on with concern as another family member has full influence over your parent's care? Maybe it is a step-parent or your parent's friend who is responsible for managing medical care and finances. Your parent seems to trust this person, yet there is something you can't quite put your finger on that doesn't appear right. Unfortunately, it is often the caretaker closest to an elderly person who is the perpetrator of abuse. If you suspect your loved one is being mistreated but don't see bruises or injuries, you may want to look somewhere unusual: in your parent's mouth. Dental abuse is such a prevalent problem in Canada--and an indicator of other types of abuse--that there is a program devoted to detecting and stopping it. Discovering possible abuse against your loved one may be grounds for a personal injury claim that will make restorative dental care, and any other necessary assistance, possible.

What is dental abuse?

Dental abuse is a term you probably have not heard before. It refers to the purposeful failure of a caregiver to provide for an elderly person's teeth. Dr. Natalie Archer, founder of the breakthrough program Dental Elder Abuse Response (DEAR), states: "Dental elder abuse can cause pain, suffering and illness for the older person." She reports that this kind of abuse can even lead to deaths--deaths which are completely preventable if proper dental care is provided. Dental elder abuse is suspected when an older person

  • stops coming for regular dental checkups after a long history of routine preventive care

  • presents with preventable dental problems, such as advanced gum disease or multiple cavities

  • presents for emergency dental treatment displaying signs of long-standing dental neglect, such as tooth loss and extensive tartar

A key element of dental abuse is the attitude of the caregiver, one shocking in its apathy. For instance, Dr. Archer reports that one caregiver told her that the elderly person under her care didn't need dentures for his tooth loss, because he had lost the ability to speak.  Another justified the lack of attention to an elderly person's missing teeth by claiming she didn't need them because she relied on IV nutrition. Sadly, the project has found that about one in three elderly dental patients is suffering dental neglect.

Ask questions

The DEAR project promotes awareness of elder dental abuse. With that in mind, the next time you visit your loved one, watch for any difficulty eating at mealtime. Ask some questions, such as

  • Are you having any difficulty chewing?

  • How long ago was your last dental checkup?

  • Are you having any pain in your mouth?

  • Do your gums ever bleed when you brush?

Offer to take your parent to a checkup. A dental visit may do more than just reveal cavities and tooth loss.  Because 75% of physical abuse involves injuries to the head, neck, and mouth, dentists are often the first to note not only dental neglect but also other signs of physical abuse.

If the dental examination makes you suspect that your loved one is being abused, call the police. Their report will trigger a social services investigation, and if that indicates abuse is indeed occurring, your parent will be removed from the caretaker. You may also have grounds, depending on the situation, to pursue a personal injury case against the person who has abused your parent.

A consultation with a personal injury attorney who specializes in elder abuse is free, but the advice you will receive to protect your loved one just may be priceless. You may be able to receive compensation for your parent that will provide for dental--and medical--needs and establish him/her in more favorable living conditions.