Brushing up on teeth

Good oral health is an important part of general health and wellbeing as we age. Age Concern has an information sheet that provides answers to questions frequently asked by older people.

"Healthy Mouth Healthy Ageing" - oral health guide for caregivers of older people

This resource published in June 2010 was developed by the New Zealand Dental Association (NZDA) in conjunction with the Ministry of Health. It provides an overview of topics that are of particular relevance to providing oral health care for older people. To view a PDF copy of this resource click here or go to New Zealand Dental Association site

For many of us, the increasing silver in our hair is matched by gold (or other metals) in our teeth. More of us are keeping more of our teeth into later life, making good dental health an important part of ageing well. Having healthy teeth and gums or correctly fitted dentures is important for overall health and a sense of wellbeing. Healthy teeth are essential for effective chewing and swallowing and therefore for good nutrition. Our teeth are on show to others when we smile, and for many of us it's important for confidence and self esteem to feel that our teeth look acceptable.

Attitudes are changing and many more of us expect to keep our teeth in later life. As we get older our need for dental care treatment continues and may increase: baby boomers may find that old fillings crack and need to be re-done; and as gums recede more of the tooth root is exposed and is vulnerable to infection: you literally become 'long in the tooth'.

Dentures may need to be replaced as the shape of the mouth continues to change throughout life.
Affordability of professional dental care is an issue for many people on fixed incomes, whether they have their own teeth or dentures.

Support for dental care

Despite the importance of good dental health Government support to adults is limited to subsidies towards emergency dental treatment, and dentures for people on low incomes. Some public hospitals have dental departments that provide low cost services to outpatients such as community service card holders and people with special needs. ACC will pay for costs associated with accident-related dental treatment. There is no general subsidised dental care for older people, unlike the UK where reduced cost dental care is provided under the National Health Service, with additional reductions for people on low incomes.

However, the good news is that the Ministry of Health is currently doing background research on dental health services for people with poor oral health outcomes, including older people. Age Concern New Zealand will be meeting with the Ministry to discuss this work and put forward some of the issues facing older New Zealanders.

Rest homes

Studies have shown that older people in rest homes have particular dental care needs. They may be unable to care for their own oral hygiene and problems in their mouth can affect their ability to eat well which in turn affects their overall health.

It's important to keep aware of this if you have a loved one in a rest home, particularly as rest home fees don't normally include dental care. Discuss any concerns you have with the rest home manager.


A daily routine will benefit your general health and may avoid the need for costly treatment later.
Six steps to keep your teeth and gums healthy:

  1. Brush twice daily, especially once before bedtime. Make sure that all the surfaces (outer, inner and chewing surface) of teeth and gum are cleaned for effective plaque removal.
  2. Use fluoride toothpaste and after brushing spit the toothpaste out. Avoid rinsing the paste from your mouth after brushing as this will wash the fluoride away from your teeth.
  3. Floss or use 'inter-dental' brushes once daily to clean between your teeth.
  4. Avoid eating sugary, sticky and acidic foods and drinks in between meals.
  5. Eat a wide variety of nutritious foods.
  6. Visit your dentist for regular check-ups. Your dentist can spot and stop any problems with your teeth and gums at the early stages.

Source: the web site of the New Zealand Dental Association

More information

The New Zealand Dental Association's website has information on preventive tooth care for adults. Look out for their updated section for seniors in mid 2009.


Age Concern New Zealand wishes to thank Lynne Giddings. Barbara McKenzie-Green and Linda Buttle of Auckland University of Technology and Deepa Krishnan of the New Zealand Dental Association for their advice and assistance in the preparation of this article.

Caring for dentures

While it is ideal to hold onto our natural teeth for life, this is not always possible. Natural teeth can be replaced by full or partial dentures or sometimes dental implants. Dental implants are still susceptible to infection of the surrounding gum; therefore regular dental hygiene visits are needed. Dentures that don't fit properly can lead to poor nutrition and potentially serious health problems. It is important that ill-fitting dentures are refitted by dentists or dental technicians. Taking proper care of dentures will prolong their life and also prevent infections.
Here are some tips to help take care of your denture(s):

  1. The denture should always be removed at night. Let your mouth rest, (breathe) and recover from wearing a denture all day.
  2. When you're not wearing the denture, it should be placed in cold water. Once a week it can be immersed overnight in a special denture cleaning solution.
  3. Rinse the denture under running water before placing it into the mouth. It is also a good idea to rinse the denture and mouth after each meal.
  4. Preferably, use a denture brush to clean the denture twice a day. Don't use hot water and toothpaste to clean dentures, as abrasive particles can damage the surface of the denture. Place a facecloth/towel in the bottom of the basin to avoid breakage if the denture is dropped
  5. Also clean your mouth's tissues, including your tongue, using a very soft toothbrush. This will assist in preventing bad breath.

Our older people's oral health

Key findings of the 2012 New Zealand Older People's Oral Health Survey. The report, published March 2016, investigates the oral health status of older people living in rest homes and those receiving home-based services in the community.
The report presents up-to-date and comprehensive information on the oral health status of the most vulnerable older New Zealanders. The study identifies high rates of oral disease and unmet need. This group of older people does not (or in some instances cannot) routinely engage in the oral health care practices that help to reduce disease and maintain oral health.
The findings underscore the importance of oral health training workshops for the caregivers of older people. The report is available from the Ministry of Health Website

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