Dementia is a disease commonly found in people over the age of 65, which causes cognitive impairment of communication skills and the ability to understand or remember things. Seniors who suffer from dementia are at a higher risk of dental disease, which can lead to financial struggles and life-threatening health issues when left untreated.
Because of this, it is important for people with dementia to receive dental care regularly. This becomes a challenge, however, if they do not understand or are unaware of the importance of oral care.
1. At the Office – Advice for Dentists
Anxiety can easily present itself at the dentist’s office, making the hygienist’s job about more than just teeth. A dentist who is treating a person with dementia must know how to best help patients have a positive experience while being treated.
Communicate with care. The way you communicate with a patient who has dementia is very important.
- Use careful terms – keep them simple so they make sense to the patient, subsiding any fears or confusion they may have.
- Use a soft tone of voice.
- Use visual and verbal cues to communicate what you are doing or an action you would like them to take. Always demonstrate if you can.
- Use positive reinforcement. Who doesn’t like a smile, nod or thumbs up?
- Keep the atmosphere calm and safe. You want your patients to feel safe and secure while visiting the office. Some ways to do that are listed below:
- Many dentists have used the wheelchairs dementia patients have as their chair in the office since many of them can tilt back.
- Distract them from worrying about their mouth. Give them something to hold if they are anxious. You can even try singing something to them!
- Sedation is an option but not recommended, as the patients already have a delicate health situation.
- Other Helpful Tips
- Keep a routine time and place for dental care to lessen confusion.
- Have the dentist and hygienists identify themselves and what actions they are about to take – before they do anything.
- A patient may be most receptive to oral care directly after a meal.
- Always stay calm and be kind. Mary McNally put it this way:
“I think you just need to stay calm. I mean, these people are sick. They need your help. They’re not doing things to cause a problem. They’re doing them because they have a cognitive impairment and are declining.”
2. At Home – Advice for Caregivers
If you are a caregiver for someone with dementia, daily care of their teeth is highly important. It can be difficult, however, to know how to help the person and when they will need assistance in cleaning their teeth.
- Care in Early Stages. In the early stages of dementia, the caregiver should let the person keep up their own dental habits – with supervision. It’s important to keep track of when and how well they are taking care of their teeth in order to monitor when they may need assistance. The person may need a demonstration in order to do it correctly. Using toothpaste with high-concentration fluoride will be helpful.
- Care in Later Stages. In the later stages of dementia, the person will not be able to remember or execute their dental habits as well as before. At a certain point, the caregiver will need to step in to keep their teeth healthy. Dentists may have good suggestions for how to keep the person’s teeth clean. A common way of cleaning someone’s teeth is standing behind them while they sit, cradling their head with one hand and brushing their teeth with another. For best results, use a dry toothbrush and toothpaste – about the size of a pea. It is good to plan for possible dental emergencies by talking to your routine dentist.
- Identify dental problems. You may be able to tell if the person has a dental problem by:
- Rejection of food – especially cold or hard food
- Pulling at face or mouth
- Refusal to put dentures in
- Moaning, shouting or restlessness
- Restless sleep
- Withdrawal from regular activities
- Treatment. If the person you are caring for needs dental care, the treatment will vary depending on the status of their dental health and the state of their mental health. Options will change with the condition of the patient, so it is best to consult a professional about the most effective treatment.
Helping and caring for someone with dementia is incredibly important and worthwhile. With the help of dentists and caregivers, people with dementia can avoid bigger problems like oral diseases.
What is some advice you have about assisting someone with dementia with their oral needs?