Medical and physical issues
I used to just need to remind my father to clean his teeth, but then he started having trouble managing to do it himself. He now lets me clean his teeth but usually just the front ones as he doesn’t open his mouth enough to let me clean the back teeth.
As a result of memory loss, people with dementia might sometimes forget to clean their teeth or dentures. Alternatively, they might find it difficult to manipulate the brush and paste, take out their dentures or remember the order in which they normally do things. This might cause embarrassment and even lead some people to pretend that they have already done it, when in fact they haven’t. In time this might lead to dental problems such as sore gums, painful cavities or badly fitting dentures. This is turn could cause them to speak less and lose interest in food. Furthermore, some people with dementia may be unaware of the problem or be unable to explain it. For this reason, it is important that you take on the responsibility for dental hygiene.
How to cope with dental problems
Different people will need different levels of assistance and these needs will probably change over time. At first you might find that it is sufficient to provide occasional reminders and, as memory deteriorates, such reminders will become increasingly necessary. The person with dementia may also need practical help (e.g. putting toothpaste on the brush). One way to provide help without it being too obvious, is to clean your teeth or prepare your dentures at the same time. By breaking the process down into short, easy to follow stages and taking your time, they might be able to copy you and perhaps manage longer alone. Eventually, however, this might not be sufficient and you might find it necessary to provide physical assistance, e.g. to guide the brush, actually brush the teeth or help to take the dentures out. Helping in such a way and even just giving reminders might be embarrassing for the person. They may feel like you are treating them like a child. You will have to be careful and tactful.
How to prevent dental problems
You should try to make sure that the person with dementia has a regular dental check-up as this will contribute greatly to reducing future dental problems. It is best to arrange a visit as soon as possible, so that the person will be better able to explain any problems, participate in decisions about care and follow the dentist’s instructions. Some dentists might consider giving a home visit or be able to put you in touch with one who will.
Last Updated: Tuesday 11 August 2009