With our aging population, it will soon be common for dental hygienists to encounter patients who suffer from a type of dementia. The most prevalent form of dementia, Alzheimer’s disease, currently affects over 5.2 million Americans who are 65 or older.
As the disease progresses, it can become increasingly difficult to provide dental care. Caregivers, hygienists, and dentists must work together to establish a treatment plan that suits each individual patient’s needs.
Why Dental Care is Important for Dementia Patients
When someone receives a dementia diagnosis, their oral health tends to take a back seat as the person and their family focuses on more pressing health issues. However, it’s important that a person with the disease continues to receive regular dental care, as the effects of dementia can cause new problems to develop and exacerbate existing dental issues.
One of the major components of the disease is short-term memory loss. A person who suffers from dementia may forget to brush their teeth or lose sight of why it’s important. In the middle to late stages of the disease, they may lose the ability to brush or loss their teeth without help. This can result in gum disease and tooth decay from oral neglect, which causes discomfort and puts the person at risk of infection.
Sometimes, the medications prescribed to a person with dementia can increase the potential for dental issues. Many patients use antidepressants and sedatives, which both have dry mouth as a side effect. The lack of saliva can lead to a build-up of plaque, increasing the risk of dental decay and gum disease. Syrup-based medications, like lactulose, can cause tooth decay due to the high sugar content.
Many older people also wear dentures, which accumulates plaque build up quickly.
Maintaining good oral health is an important part of a patient’s overall health. Having healthy gums and teeth makes it easier for a person to eat and digest food, which reduces the risk of malnutrition and improves their quality of life overall.
How Dental Hygienists Can Help
- Understand the condition. There are several types and degrees of dementia, and different patients are living at different levels and progressions of the disease. If possible, find out about the patient’s condition ahead of time and learn what you can about their cognitive state.
- Develop a good rapport with the patient. Before the appointment, take time to connect with the person (and their caregiver, if applicable) to put them at ease. This will help to avoid misinterpretations.
- Be patient. Those with moderate to severe dementia may have a limited ability to follow instructions or communicate their needs. Don’t take it personally if you have to repeat yourself. It helps to break instructions down into small, easy steps (sit down, lean back, open your mouth, say “ah.”)
- Keep constant communication. Short-term memory loss is a common feature of dementia. Be sure to reassure the patient and let them know what’s going on throughout the appointment.
- Write it down. Whether the patient arrives with a caregiver or not, it’s important to write down your instructions and recommendations in case they forget.