By Ken Takeya
With all the other concerns and responsibilities involved in taking care of a person with dementia, dental care is sometimes overlooked. Dealing with a loved one’s physical needs can be very tiring, but can also bring a sense of doing something positive and at times a feeling of accomplishment.
Why is their dental hygiene so important? Your loved one may not be able to tell you they have a toothache or gum problems, especially in the later stages of the disease. An abscess in the mouth can lead to many serious illnesses and cause undue pain and suffering for your loved one. It should be part of your care plan to look after their dental hygiene and keep any oral health issues under control.
Most dental insurance plans cover a teeth cleaning (prophylaxis) every six months. Since it can be extremely difficult getting a dementia patient to comply with brushing and flossing twice a day, you may want to consider paying for two extra cleanings a year so your loved one goes to the dentist every three months. This can help combat plaque and tartar buildup on the teeth and prevent serious gum conditions like gingivitis and periodontitis, all of which contribute to decay and tooth loss. Additional cleanings can be especially helpful if your loved one needs ongoing help controlling or treating an established oral disorder.
Daily Dental Care Tips
A dementia patient’s quality of life is especially important. Although sugar is a notorious culprit when it comes to dental issues, if your loved one enjoys candy, cookies, cake, ice cream or other sweets, by all means let them have it (with their doctor’s permission). After the snack is consumed, though, take the time to have them drink water or at the very least rinse out their mouth. This will help to flush out residual sugar and bacteria and keep their mouth moist. Saliva is meant to serve this rinsing purpose, but many older adults suffer from dry mouth that can be caused by a wide range of over-the-counter and prescription medications. Again, this is an extra step, but well worth it.
Try to end every meal with first oranges and then crisp, raw fruits and vegetables like apples, pears, celery or carrots followed by water. The oranges will break down the sugar and starch in their mouth and the apples, pears, celery or carrots will help “brush” plaque from their teeth. Once again, the last step is using water to wash everything down. Check with their doctor and dentist before starting this type of program.
Last but not least, flossing and brushing their teeth regularly is critical, but can often be a struggle. Sometimes a children’s toothbrush might work better because the head is smaller, allowing you to reach hard-to-get areas that an adult toothbrush cannot. If your loved one cannot floss or helping them is too difficult, try using a water flossing machine such as a Waterpik. Remember not to go too fast and be mindful of the angle of the nozzle so you do not injure their gums. Instead of using only water in the reservoir of the appliance, you can also try mixing anti-cavity mouthwash with the water. This way you accomplish two objectives at once.
All the above suggestions may not work for everyone, but hopefully this inspiration can help you develop or adapt a similar plan that works for you and your loved one.
Ken has been caring for his wife, Charlotte, for 13 years of their 48-year marriage. Charlotte was initially diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, but doctors eventually found that her cognitive impairment and other symptoms were actually caused by normal pressure hydrocephalus (NPH). Ken lives in Hawaii and runs his own support group for family caregivers.