Oral health care for dementia patients
An aspect of everyday care for people with dementia, or an Alzheimer’s related condition, that is easily neglected is oral health and hygiene.
While a lot of dementia patients live in nursing homes in a supportive living community, the majority live at home, and are supported by a family caregiver (or care partner for early stage dementia).
There are many challenges that face Alzheimer’s caregivers. Managing their loved one’s health and well-being can be a daunting undertaking and an exhausting role. Caregivers are often uncertain about what tasks their loved ones are still able to perform.
While promoting independence for as long as possible is a positive step, caregivers also need to know when to assist a patient in order to prevent injury and keep them safe.
One area of concern that may be overlooked, because the risk of injury may not be immediately apparent, is a patient’s oral health and hygiene.
When older adults with Alzheimer’s disease lose their ability to brush and floss their teeth effectively, they cannot maintain good oral health. As a result, their risk of developing tooth decay and gum disease increases significantly.*
Caregivers can assist a patient to brush and floss their teeth with a number of techniques:
- Provide instructions using short, simple phrases.
- Non-specific phrases such as “Brush your teeth” should be avoided.
- Each part of the tooth brushing and flossing process can be broken down into step by step instructions – from “Put the toothpaste on the brush” to “Rinse your mouth with some water”.
- Demonstrate how to brush teeth while the patient observes and repeats movements.
- Hold the patient’s hand, and gently guide the brush over their teeth in the correct brushing motion.
Dementia patients should also be monitored as part of a daily dental care routine. If the patient is unable to describe symptoms of oral pain and discomfort, there are signs to look out for, such as the patient refusing to eat hard or cold foods, or making a pained expression when eating. Dental appliances including dentures should be removed, cleaned and checked.
Lastly, dental visits should be scheduled according to the patient’s needs. Dentists can also help caregivers with suggestions, advice and dental products that can assist in everyday brushing and flossing for patients.
*New research shows that dementia (or Alzheimer’s) patients with gum disease (periodontitis) experienced faster cognitive decline than those without it. The rate of decline can be up to six times faster than normal. Researchers discovered that gum inflammation and the effects of our immune response speeded up the development of dementia.