The Importance of Dental Care for People with Dementia

Dementia is a condition that affects the brain and causes problems with memory, thinking, and behavior. People with dementia may have difficulty remembering things, communicating, or performing daily tasks. They may also experience changes in their mood, personality, or emotions.

One of the aspects of life that can be affected by dementia is dental care. Dental care is the practice of keeping your teeth and mouth healthy by brushing, flossing, and visiting the dentist regularly. Dental care is important for everyone, but especially for people with dementia, as it can help prevent or treat many oral health problems that can affect their quality of life.

In this article, you will learn:

  • Why dental care is important for people with dementia
  • What are the common dental problems that people with dementia may face?
  • How to provide dental care for people with dementia at home or in a care facility
  • How to find a dementia-friendly dentist and prepare for dental visits?

Why dental care is important for people with dementia

The Importance of Dental Care for People with Dementia
The Importance of Dental Care for People with Dementia

Dental care is important for people with dementia for several reasons:

  • It can help prevent or reduce pain and discomfort from tooth decay, gum disease, infections, or broken teeth. Pain can affect the person’s mood, behavior, appetite, sleep, and overall well-being.
  • It can help prevent or treat bad breath, dry mouth, or oral thrush, which can affect the person’s self-esteem, social interactions, and oral hygiene.
  • It can help prevent or manage swallowing difficulties or choking risks, which can affect the person’s nutrition, hydration, and safety.
  • It can help prevent or reduce the risk of pneumonia, which can be caused by bacteria from the mouth entering the lungs. Pneumonia is a serious and potentially fatal infection that can affect people with dementia more severely than others.
  • It can help maintain the person’s appearance and identity, which can affect their self-confidence and dignity.

What are the common dental problems that people with dementia may face?

People with dementia may face various dental problems as their condition progresses. Some of the common ones are:

Tooth decay:

This is when the outer layer of the tooth (enamel) is damaged by acids from plaque (a sticky film of bacteria and food) or sugars. Tooth decay can cause cavities (holes) in the teeth, which can lead to pain, sensitivity, infection, or tooth loss.

Gum disease:

This is when the gums (the soft tissue that surrounds and supports the teeth) are inflamed or infected by plaque or tartar (hardened plaque). Gum disease can cause bleeding, swelling, redness, or soreness of the gums. It can also cause the gums to pull away from the teeth (recede), creating pockets where bacteria can grow. Gum disease can damage the bone and tissue that hold the teeth in place, leading to loose teeth or tooth loss.

Dry mouth:

This is when there is not enough saliva (spit) in the mouth to keep it moist and clean. Saliva helps wash away food particles and bacteria from the teeth and gums. It also helps neutralize acids that can cause tooth decay. Dry mouth can be caused by dehydration, medication side effects, mouth breathing, or reduced chewing activity. Dry mouth can increase the risk of tooth decay, gum disease, bad breath, oral thrush (a fungal infection), or difficulty swallowing.

Oral thrush:

This is when there is an overgrowth of a fungus called Candida in the mouth. Candida normally lives in small amounts in the mouth without causing any problems. However, it can multiply and cause an infection when there is an imbalance in the oral environment. This can be due to dry mouth, poor oral hygiene, medication side effects, diabetes, or a weakened immune system.

Oral thrush can cause white patches on the tongue or inside the cheeks that may be painful or bleed when scraped. It can also cause a burning sensation in the mouth or throat, altered taste, or difficulty swallowing.

Broken teeth or dental work:

This is when a tooth or a part of a tooth breaks off due to trauma (such as a fall), decay (such as a cavity), or wear and tear (such as grinding). Broken teeth or dental work can cause pain, sensitivity, infection, or injury to the tongue or cheek. They can also affect the person’s appearance and ability to chew.

How to provide dental care for people with dementia at home or in a care facility

Providing dental care for people with dementia can be challenging but rewarding. It requires patience, compassion, communication skills, and creativity. Here are some tips to help you provide dental care for people with dementia at home or in a care facility:

Establish a routine:

Try to brush the person’s teeth twice a day at regular times that suit their schedule and preferences. For example, you could brush their teeth after breakfast and before bedtime. This can help the person get used to the activity and make it easier for them to cooperate.

Choose the right tools:

Use a soft-bristled toothbrush that is comfortable and easy to hold. You can also try an electric toothbrush, a children’s toothbrush, or a toothbrush with a large or angled handle. Use a fluoride toothpaste that has a mild flavor and does not foam too much. You can also try a gel, a spray, or a wipe that contains fluoride. Use dental floss, an interdental brush, or a water flosser to clean between the teeth. Use a mouthwash, a rinse, or a gel that contains fluoride and antimicrobial agents to prevent tooth decay and gum disease. Use denture cleaner, a brush, or a tablet to clean dentures daily.

Provide guidance and support:

Depending on the person’s level of ability and willingness, you may need to assist them or do the task for them. You can use different methods to help them brush their teeth, such as giving short and simple instructions, demonstrating the action, guiding their hand, or using the tell-show-do technique. You can also use positive reinforcement, praise, or rewards to encourage them. Be gentle and respectful and avoid forcing or hurting them.

Create a comfortable and familiar environment:

Choose a place where the person feels relaxed and safe to brush their teeth. It does not have to be the bathroom. It can be the bedroom, the living room, or even outside. Make sure the lighting is adequate and there is no noise or distraction. You can also play some soothing music or use aromatherapy to create a calming atmosphere. You can also use items that the person likes or recognizes, such as their favorite toothbrush, toothpaste, cup, or towel.

Monitor and reduce sugar intake:

Sugar can cause tooth decay and gum disease by feeding the bacteria in the mouth. Try to limit the amount of sugar that the person consumes in their food and drinks. You can also use artificial sweeteners instead of sugar. Encourage the person to drink water after eating or drinking something sweet to rinse their mouth. Avoid giving them sticky or hard candies that can damage their teeth or dental work.

Seek professional help:

Take the person to see a dentist regularly for check-ups and cleaning. This can help prevent or treat any dental problems that may arise. Choose a dentist who is experienced and trained in treating people with dementia. Inform the dentist about the person’s medical history, medications, allergies, and preferences. Prepare the person for the visit by explaining what will happen and why it is important. You can also bring something that can comfort or distract them during the visit, such as a toy, a book, or a music player.

How to find a dementia-friendly dentist and prepare for dental visits

Finding a dementia-friendly dentist can make a big difference in providing dental care for people with dementia. A dementia-friendly dentist is someone who understands the needs and challenges of people with dementia and adapts their practice accordingly. Here are some tips to help you find a dementia-friendly dentist and prepare for dental visits:

Ask for recommendations:

You can ask your doctor, your pharmacist, your social worker, your local Alzheimer’s association, or other caregivers for referrals to dentists who are experienced and trained in treating people with dementia. You can also search online for dentists who have special qualifications or certifications in geriatric dentistry or dementia care.

Do some research:

Before choosing a dentist, you may want to do some research about their background, reputation, services, fees, location, accessibility, and availability. You can also call or visit their office and ask some questions about how they accommodate people with dementia.

For example, you can ask if they have flexible appointment times, if they allow extra time for each visit, if they have staff who are trained in dementia care, if they have special equipment or techniques for people with dementia, if they have any policies or procedures for dealing with challenging behaviors or emergencies, etc.

Schedule an initial consultation:

Once you have chosen a dentist, you may want to schedule an initial consultation with them before booking any treatment appointments. This can help you establish rapport with the dentist and their staff and assess their suitability for your needs.

You can also use this opportunity to provide them with relevant information about the person with dementia, such as their medical history, medications, allergies, preferences, abilities, behaviors, etc. You can also discuss your expectations and goals for dental care and agree on a treatment plan.

Plan ahead:

Before each dental visit, you may want to plan ahead to make sure everything goes smoothly. You may want to arrange transportation, pack some essentials (such as identification documents, insurance cards, medication list), prepare some snacks or drinks (in case of delays), etc.

You may also want to remind the person with dementia about the visit and why it is important. You may want to show them some pictures of the dentist or their office or watch some videos of dental procedures to familiarize them with what will happen.

Be supportive:

During the dental visit, you may want to be supportive and reassuring to the person with dementia. You may want to stay with them throughout the visit or hold their hand if they allow it. You may also want to distract them with some conversation, music, or jokes if they are nervous or bored.

You may also want to praise them for their cooperation and bravery. You may also want to follow the dentist’s instructions and suggestions for providing dental care at home or in a care facility.

Follow up:

After the dental visit, you may want to follow up with the person with dementia and the dentist. You may want to check how the person is feeling and if they have any pain, discomfort, or complications from the treatment. You may also want to give them some painkillers, ice packs, or soft foods if needed.

You may also want to contact the dentist if you have any questions or concerns about the treatment or the aftercare. You may also want to schedule the next appointment or remind the person when it is due.

Dental care is important for people with dementia as it can help prevent or treat many oral health problems that can affect their quality of life. People with dementia may face various dental problems such as tooth decay, gum disease, dry mouth, oral thrush, or broken teeth or dental work.

Providing dental care for people with dementia can be challenging but rewarding. It requires patience, compassion, communication skills, and creativity. You can provide dental care for people with dementia at home or in a care facility by establishing a routine, choosing the right tools, providing guidance and support, creating a comfortable and familiar environment, monitoring and reducing sugar intake, and seeking professional help.

Finding a dementia-friendly dentist can make a big difference in providing dental care for people with dementia. A dementia-friendly dentist is someone who understands the needs and challenges of people with dementia and adapts their practice accordingly. You can find a dementia-friendly dentist and prepare for dental visits by asking for recommendations, doing some research, scheduling an initial consultation, planning ahead, being supportive, and following up.

By providing dental care for people with dementia regularly, you can help them maintain their oral health and well-being.

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