With all the other concerns and responsibilities involved in taking care of a person with dementia, dental care can be easily overlooked. However, maintaining proper oral hygiene is a crucial factor that influences a senior’s overall health and their quality of life.

Someone with Alzheimer’s disease or another form of dementia may not be able to communicate that 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 complications, cause undue pain and suffering, and interfere with a senior’s ability to get proper nutrition. Because dental problems can worsen quickly, every caregiver should make dentist appointments and daily dental care an important part of their loved one’s care plan.

Teeth Cleanings and Dementia

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 each year so your loved one goes to the dentist every three months. This can help combat plaque and tartar buildup on the teeth. Additional cleanings also help to prevent serious gum conditions like gingivitis and periodontitis, which contribute to decay and tooth loss. Dental appointments are especially important if a dementia patient needs ongoing help controlling or treating an established oral disorder.

As the disease progresses, seniors may become increasingly agitated and noncompliant during cleanings. This is understandable, as dentist appointments can be nerve-racking and uncomfortable. Try to attend scheduled dental exams for as long as your loved one is able. Contact the dental society in your area to find a dental professional who has plenty of experience working with elders and dementia patients. However, understand that difficult dementia behaviors and diminishing capacity will eventually make regular cleanings too traumatic. At that point, assisting your loved one with flossing, brushing and rinsing as often as they will allow is the best way to maintain their oral health.

Daily Dental Care Tips for Seniors

While a dementia patient’s health is usually a caregiver’s main focus, quality of life is equally 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, indulge them (with their doctor’s permission). After the snack is consumed, though, take the time to have them drink water or at least rinse out their mouth. This will help to flush out residual food particles and bacteria, preventing the buildup of tartar and plaque. Proper hydration also helps to keep their mouth moist and inhibit bacterial growth. Saliva is meant to serve this rinsing purpose, but many older adults suffer from dry mouth caused by a wide range of over-the-counter and prescription medications.

A fruit salad can be a surprisingly helpful tool in maintaining dental hygiene. Try to end every meal with a few orange slices and a few pieces of crisp, raw fruits and vegetables, such as apples, pears, celery or carrots. The acid in the oranges will break down the sugar and starch in their mouth, and the crunchy fruits or vegetables 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, especially if any chewing or swallowing issues are present.

Lastly, flossing and brushing a dementia patient’s teeth regularly is critical. Unfortunately, this step is often a struggle. I suggest purchasing a children’s toothbrush for brushing your loved one’s teeth. This can work better because the head is smaller and the bristles are extra soft, allowing you to reach hard-to-get areas more easily and comfortably.

If your loved one cannot floss or helping them is too difficult, try using a water flossing machine such as a Waterpik. This approach is gentler on the gums and much easier than trying to manipulate string floss without inflicting injuries. Remember to proceed slowly and calmly let your loved one know what you are going to do next. Be mindful of the water temperature, pressure setting and the angle of the nozzle while working. Instead of using only water in the reservoir of the appliance, I sometimes add a small amount of anti-cavity mouthwash while rinsing my wife’s teeth. This allows you to accomplish two objectives at once, but be careful that your loved one does not swallow this solution.

All the above suggestions may not work for everyone, but these strategies have helped me care for my wife’s teeth for years. Hopefully these tips can help you develop or adapt a similar plan that works for you and your loved one. If you have any questions or concerns, be sure to consult a dental professional.