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Sharing the love for our elders

April 1, 2012
This story is about love, responsibility, and near tragedy.
What would grandmother want?

By Kelley Shepard, RDH

This story is about love, responsibility, and near tragedy.

My grandmother was a kind and gentle woman. When I was a child, my grandmother and grandfather watched my brother and me countless times when our parents traveled or went out for the evening. We always looked forward to being with them, and I have so many fond memories of the bond I had with my grandparents.

Together as a family we watched over my grandmother after she was widowed. Her challenges — not the least of which was that she had never driven, probably due to her hearing loss from the scarlet fever she contracted at age three — were many. My grandmother was 94 when she passed, but this is a story of how a simple extraction nearly claimed her life several years earlier.

The life-threatening events that unfolded following the simple extraction of a molar were due to the bacterial infection that was the result of periodontal disease and abscess. My grandmother’s breathing was extremely labored because her cervical lymph nodes became severely edematous. She became dehydrated, spiked a fever, and within 24 hours became very lethargic. All the while she was alone, unable to reach out for help due to her inability to hear on the phone.

It’s painful to admit that though I was intellectually aware of her condition, I hadn’t taken necessary precautions for my grandmother, especially taking into account her unique situation. There are a myriad of special risk factors for the elderly that cannot be overlooked. While I needed to increase the amount of attention I paid to my grandmother during her recuperation, my reservations stemmed from her independence — something that was precious to her.

Today I speak at senior centers, senior living communities, rehab hospitals, and other senior-centric groups and venues, about geriatric dentistry. If someone calls, I volunteer to talk to seniors or senior caregivers. When I began preparing my presentation on senior care as it relates to geriatric dentistry, I conducted online research and discovered that one of the nation’s leading experts is Marsha Pyle, DDS, from Ohio. Upon digging deeper I learned that Dr. Pyle had recently been named the dean of the University of Missouri-Kansas City Dental School in my hometown. Dr. Pyle directed me to several resources from Ohio State University, where she served on the faculty prior to accepting the dean’s position at UMKC.

In 2000, the ADA presented the Ohio State University Geriatric Dentistry Program with a recognition award for its contribution to the advancement of the art and science of geriatric oral health. There is a lot of information available through the World Health Organization, the Centers for Disease Control, and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services on oral health challenges facing the nation’s growing elderly population.

The research indicates that the elderly have numerous challenges relating to a changing dentition. Caries, periodontal pocketing and loss of attachment, edentulousness, denture-related conditions, oral cancer, xerostomia, and pain and discomfort are factors that can lead to inadequate diet and malnutrition. Inadequate oral hygiene due to poor dexterity or limited mobility, or compromised chewing and functioning abilities, can lead to low self-esteem and social isolation.

My goal is to promote improvement of the oral health of the elderly. My hope is that through increased training in geriatric oral health care, the topic can be part of the curricula of dental and dental hygiene schools, and that research on oral health promotion and disease prevention for older people can be conducted.

I don’t want other seniors to experience what my dear grandmother endured — and I want to help raise awareness for caregivers on their important role in being vigilant about their loved one’s dental condition.

Kelley Shepard, RDH, is a 1983 graduate of Johnson County Community College in Overland Park, Kan. She has two adult children who are also very active in the local community, as well as missions work abroad. Shepard can be reached at [email protected].

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