How healthcare can improve oral health for the elderly

Oral health is an important component of the well-being and general health of elderly people, yet it is often neglected in healthcare. Maria Snögren, doctoral candidate in Health and Care Sciences at Jönköping University, funded by the University of Skövde, has researched the experiences of elderly people and healthcare staff regarding oral care. The results may help healthcare organisations provide better oral care, which in turn improves the overall health of the elderly.

Foto: Zinkevych

Maria Snögren, doctoral candidate at the University of Skövde and the School of Health and Welfare at Jönköping University, has investigated a frequently overlooked yet highly significant aspect of care – oral health within Swedish elderly care. She examined the subject from the perspectives of both elderly individuals and healthcare workers.

"I have worked as a nurse and a specialist nurse in elderly care for nearly twenty years. When I started my doctoral studies, I wanted to improve oral care for both the elderly and the healthcare staff," says Maria Snögren.

Collaboration, time, knowledge, and reflection are the key

We are taught to brush our teeth from a young age. Looking after our mouths helps maintain both good oral health and general health. Poor oral health can lead to pain, reduced appetite, and contribute to infections, both in the mouth and in other parts of the body.

Maria Snögren

Providing oral care is a complex task, and the need for support increases with a person’s age. However, it has been observed that staff in municipal elderly care often neglect oral care for elderly individuals for various reasons, such as lack of time, ignorance, and inadequate routines. Oral care can also be perceived as unpleasant to carry out.

Maria Snögren began to study elderly people's experiences and perceptions of oral health, as well as healthcare staff's attitudes towards and knowledge of it. She collected research data by interviewing people from both groups and having healthcare staff complete a digital course on oral health where they answered questions before and after the training.

"Elderly people value good oral health, and the healthcare staff value knowledge related to it. But oral care is challenging, and requires that the healthcare staff have the knowledge, routines, time, and collaborate to carry it out. They should also be familiar with the elderly person’s individual needs," she says.

Digital Education as a Way to Increase Healthcare Staff's Knowledge

The research shows that digital education is a way to increase healthcare staff's knowledge of oral health. The digital training, combined with practical exercises, contributes to both theoretical and practical knowledge that can drive progress. The results indicate that it is important for the staff to have the resources to provide good oral care. This involves time, knowledge, and also having the opportunity to get to know the care recipients.

The results also suggest that nurses should have the opportunity to collaborate with other healthcare staff around oral health and oral care. They should be the natural leaders of care, along with other healthcare workers.

"I observed that the collaboration between nurses, auxiliary nurses, and care assistants did not always work well. However, the collaboration was more effective in end-of-life care. Collaboration, time, knowledge, and reflection are therefore crucial factors for healthcare organisations to consider in the future to ensure good oral care in municipal elderly care,” says Maria Snögren.

Maria Snögren defended her doctoral thesis "Oral Health - Elderly Persons' Experiences and Healthcare Staff's Attitudes and Knowledge" on 26 April at the University of Skövde.