I found out recently that my oldest patient had passed away. She had fully lived all of her 97 years and I felt reflective about the time I had spent with her. I learned a great deal from Frances, and it has inspired me to write this post, with the blessing of her family.
Lessons from Frances
Frances was a wonderful treasure for us at Harmony Dental Studio, and we always enjoyed seeing her. I will always remember her warm and gracious spirit and how lovingly she spoke of her family, especially her grandchildren.
Ever social, Frances always enquired about our families too. She would always ask to see pictures of my children. Her memory keen, I quickly learned to print out new photos when I saw her name on the schedule as passing off the same photo twice never worked!
I realize that I only get a brief window into a person’s life on the quick occasions of our appointments. There is a whole life in what I will never know of her, a life well memorialized by her family. And I would like to add to the lessons she and others have taught me as a care provider and a dentist.
Life Is Too Short for Soft Food
Frances was already into her 90’s when we met. It was obvious to me that her education and her practice in nutrition allowed her to keep her teeth beyond her 90th year. Frances was a nutritionist before it was a mainstream profession, and the lifelong impact of good nutrition cannot be underestimated. Nutrition is vital to healthy teeth and teeth are vital to a healthy diet. She maintained a good variety of foods and loss of chewing function was often her main complaint.
Smiles Don’t Expire
There is no age limit to wanting to eat well and look good. Not giving a patient the best options because of age is not good care. Every face looks better with a smile. I can’t imagine an age at which I will not care about fueling my body and feeling good. The lipstick isle better be walker friendly!
Treating older persons means seeing dental work that has withstood the test of time. As a dentist, by the time you have followed up your own work for 20 years you are a fair way though your practising years. I recommend treating seniors to newly minted dentist. You can learn so much even through simple and careful observation. What type of restorations are in good repair, how different bites cause different sets of problems, what teeth remain versus those lost. You learn about overall health issues, medications and their implications.
Dental Care isn’t just Teeth
Dentists need to take a step back and a step out of the mouth. Treating the whole person is always more important than treating the teeth to ‘ideal’. This can mean modifying our goal to solely the elimination of pain, or providing function. It can also mean accepting some level of disease, and that sometimes the cure is worse than the problem.
I have had the fortune of learning from my elders early in my career. It has been a vital learning point for me to treat people in their 90s. Learning from their lives, character and needs has taught me much as an individual but as a dentist seeing what it takes to live a whole life with healthy teeth has made me a much better practitioner.
If I am so lucky to live until 97 I hope to be like Frances. Not only that I have kept my teeth, but that I keep so much love and joy around me. We will miss you Frances, thanks for sharing your smile with us!