Today, nearly 50 million Americans live with dementia. With symptoms like forgetfulness, limited social skills, and impaired thinking abilities—dementia greatly impacts daily life—including oral health care.
For instance, older adults with dementia are at increased risk for tooth decay and gum disease and may lose ability to brush their teeth effectively. Proper care of the mouth and teeth helps prevent eating difficulties, digestive problems and extensive dental procedures down the road.
Abbie Goudarzi, DDS, one of our dental consultants, has a parent with dementia and knows what a challenge it can be to help a loved one maintain good oral health. As a caregiver and dentist, she knows there’s a lot you can do to ensure your loved one’s smile stays healthy despite their dementia diagnosis.
Here are Dr. Abbie’s tips on caring for loved ones with dementia:
•Use short instructions. “Brush your teeth” seems simple, but it may be too much. Walk through each step of the process—hold the brush and put toothpaste on it. Breaking up instructions into mini-steps can make commands easier to understand. Be aware that a person with dementia may need a toothbrush with a different handle design that is easier to grip or one with softer bristles.
•Do it together. Take the lead—brush together in the bathroom mirror. The demonstration will show the person firsthand how to brush.
•As dementia progresses, you may find that you have to do the brushing and flossing for your loved one. The time and place are not important. Do it when you are both most relaxed and where it is most comfortable. It does not need to be done in the bathroom. It can be done with the person sitting in a chair with you positioned behind them. Flossing is also very important. It may be easiest to use a proxabrush or a floss holder.
•When brushing and flossing is difficult, a wet gauze may be used to wipe out the mouth.
•Dry mouth can be an issue for many people with dementia, especially due to many medications that they are taking which can decrease their saliva. Drinking plenty of water and limiting snacking is important.
•For those who have dentures, it is important to remove the dentures at bedtime, clean them and soak them overnight.
•Look for clues. Make sure you’re on top of daily care routines and monitor them closely. For example, if you notice strained facial expressions while eating, this may indicate dental pain.
•Remember dental appointments. Routine checkups are key for your loved one. Seek out a dentist who has experience working with dementia patients. It may be necessary to be have exams and cleanings more frequently. Dental procedures can become more difficult as the disease progresses, so work to encourage a good oral health routine.
These tips are a great starting point. Dr. Abbie also wants you to remember that your loved one’s dentist is your best ally. Talk with them. They’re happy to show you how to care for your loved one’s oral health.
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