Oral Care Tips for Dementia Caregivers

erica medical reviewer
Medically Reviewed
by Dr. Erica Anand
Kelly Jamrozy
Written by
Kelly Jamrozy
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Evidence Based
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6 sources cited
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How Does Dementia Affect Oral Health?

Dementia makes maintaining good oral health more challenging.

The best thing someone in the early stages of dementia and/or their caregivers can do is to focus on preventative dental care. 

This means making a healthy mouth and dental hygiene a priority. It also means daily brushing and flossing and regular dental appointments. 

Prioritizing the dental care of elderly patients makes it less likely there will be future problems that require extensive treatment and emergency dental care.

This is good advice for anyone, but it’s especially important for someone with dementia. Undergoing invasive dental treatments is stressful and difficult for people with dementia to understand.

During the mid- and later stages of dementia, caregivers will likely need to assist the patient with basic dental care. As challenging as routine dental care might be, keeping up with this is important.

As dementia progresses, it grows increasingly difficult for patients to communicate about pain. The more you can do to keep dental health stable and prevent problems, the less you’ll need to worry about a dementia patient experiencing pain or undergoing stressful treatments. 

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What is Dementia?

Dementia refers to a variety of conditions that cause mental impairment. It describes people who struggle to think clearly, remember, and make decisions to the point that it interferes with everyday life.

Alzheimer’s is the most common type of dementia, but it’s only one of several disorders that fall into this category.

Most of the time, dementia disorders affect older adults. However, younger people can develop dementia.

Dementia is not a normal part of aging. Because people’s memories aren’t as sharp as they get older, some people assume it’s normal to develop dementia. This isn’t the case.

Slight memory lapses, such as forgetting your keys or struggling to remember names, is perfectly normal. But dementia affects old memories, language, and other things that should remain intact regardless of age. 

Dementia causes changes in:

  • Memory
  • Attention
  • Reasoning
  • Judgment
  • Communication
  • Visual perception

Everyone is different and signs of dementia vary from person to person. If you suspect you or a loved one is showing signs of dementia, it’s important to speak to a doctor as soon as possible.

It’s also important to understand that dementia affects more than a person’s memory. People with dementia struggle with daily tasks, including personal hygiene. 

Caregivers must take responsibility for a loved one’s health to prevent physical problems, in addition to the mental health issues associated with dementia. This includes a dementia patient’s oral health.

Dental care is important for everyone. For people with dementia, tooth decay and other dental hygiene issues might go unnoticed due to other more pressing health concerns.

How to Support People With Oral Health Issues & Dementia

There are several things you can do to support the oral health of people with dementia. For example:

Tips for Patients with Dementia

Brush and floss on a daily basis as you’ve done all your life. If you aren’t sure if you’re doing it right, ask your dentist for a demonstration. If you’re experiencing challenges at home, ask a loved one for assistance.

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Visit the dental office for twice-yearly checkups. 

There are special dental health tools available to help those who struggle with at-home dental health. A large-handle soft bristled toothbrush or electric toothbrush are a few options that make the experience easier.

If you are uncomfortable with anything about your usual at-home dental health routine, consider changing it. This includes brushing somewhere other than the bathroom or brushing at a different time of day.

Use a fluoride toothpaste under supervision if you tend to swallow when brushing. You can use baking soda and water or opt for a commercial fluoride-free toothpaste. But these alternatives won’t have as much protection against tooth decay. 

Tips for Parents and Caretakers

There are several things caregivers can do to help maintain good dental health for people with dementia.

For example:

  • Help the patient brush his or her teeth after every meal. If this isn’t reasonable, have them rinse their mouths out with water after eating or a few times each day. Or, consider wiping out their mouth with gauze or a wet cloth, especially after consuming sugary foods and beverages.
  • If you’re reminding someone how to brush, offer short, simple instructions. Go step-by-step and be as patient as possible.
  • Demonstrate by brushing your teeth. Brushing together is a great way to help people with dementia remember what they should be doing. It also avoids embarrassment in the early and middle stages of the disease.
  • Find a dentist who has experience working with dementia or other special needs patients. This makes those twice-yearly visits less stressful. Also, make sure the patient’s dentist has the contact information of other healthcare providers caring for the patient. 

Tips for Dentists

Working with dementia patients can be an intimidating experience. It gets easier with experience, but no two situations are the same. The more flexible and patient you are, the easier dental visits will be for everyone involved.

If possible, consider adding house calls to your list of services. Conducting a dental exam out of your office might be challenging for you. But an exam in an environment that is comfortable and familiar for a dementia patient is much easier on them.

Discuss the patient’s at-home dental health routine with the patient and their caregiver. At some point, the patient’s caregiver will assume the majority of responsibility for the patient’s dental health routine.

Make sure caregivers know the signs of tooth pain and other dental health issues. Dementia patients might struggle to communicate that they are experiencing discomfort. 

Caregivers must know what to look for, including swelling, chewing on one side, and other signs of distress.

Provide tips on keeping the patient’s mouth moist. It’s normal for saliva levels to dip as someone ages, even if they do not have dementia. 

However, a dementia patient might struggle to communicate thirst and symptoms of a dry mouth. There are medications available to help with saliva production if the problem is severe. 

Dementia Resource Links

Resources

(1) Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “What Is Dementia?” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 5 Apr. 2019.

(2) “What Is Dementia? Symptoms, Types, and Diagnosis.” National Institute on Aging.

(3) “Dental Care.” Alzheimer’s Disease and Dementia, 2019.

(4) Marchini, Leonardo, et al. “Oral Health Care for Patients with Alzheimer’s Disease: An Update.” Special Care in Dentistry, vol. 39, no. 3, 9 Apr. 2019, pp. 262–273, 10.1111/scd.12375. 

(5) Foltyn, P. “Ageing, Dementia and Oral Health.” Australian Dental Journal, vol. 60, Mar. 2015, pp. 86–94, 10.1111/adj.12287. 

(6) “Alzheimer’s and Dementia Care: 8 Tips for Doctor Visits.” Mayo Clinic, www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/caregivers/in-depth/alzheimers/art-20047326.

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