March 8, 2021
by Dr. Gary Salwin
People living with dementia—and those taking care of their needs—are bound to face a lot of challenges as the condition progresses.
Dementia affects the behavior, thinking, and memory of those diagnosed with it. Their reasoning and memory skills decline over time.
People with dementia will tend to forget things, even something as basic and important as brushing their teeth. Some may not even remember what a toothbrush is or how to use it.
As a result, their quality of life could worsen because of the oral and dental issues that may come with forgetting or neglecting to practice proper oral hygiene.
More often than not, their caregivers will take responsibility for their dental care routine at home. They will ensure that the people in their care will brush their teeth, with or without their assistance.
Generally, however, dental care for people living with dementia is a collaborative effort between their caregivers and the dentists that take them in as patients.
For dental professionals, treating people with dementia can prove to be challenging.
If you’re a dentist treating patients living with dementia, there are a few things you need to remember to ensure that they receive the professional dental and oral care they need.
Before taking on a patient with dementia, you will need to know more about the condition itself, from the types of dementia to its different stages.
By getting a better understanding of dementia, you will be in a better position to formulate an oral care plan specific to your patient living with the condition.
For people with dementia, unfamiliar surroundings could trigger bouts of anxiety, and your dental practice certainly qualifies as such.
To make them feel more at ease when they’re in your office, you need to create a more “dementia-friendly” environment.
Some of the things you can do to achieve that include:
It will also help if you ask your patient’s caregiver if there’s anything else that might make your dental practice environment more dementia-friendly, like the type of music he or she would like playing while in the chair, or if there should be no music at all.
Attending dental patients living with dementia might take longer than your typical routine appointment, with all the things you need to consider when communicating with them and performing whatever procedure they need.
So, when finalizing an appointment with a person with dementia, make sure that you set an appropriate amount of time for it.
It would also be great if you can ensure that the appointment is set at a time of day that will be optimal for patients and their caregivers.
Communication is critical when treating dental patients with dementia.
Always greet your patient living with dementia like you would any other patient: welcoming and friendly.
As much as possible, avoid speaking loudly and keep your voice at an even pitch. Be aware of your tone and your body language as well because you wouldn’t want to be misinterpreted by a person with dementia.
Talk to them about their interests, what they did for a living, or anything that will make them feel that you’re personally interested in them.
Considering the way their condition affects their communication skills, you would do well to keep your language as simple as possible and your sentences sweet and short. And if they say something that you don’t understand, just nod and smile to help them stay calm.
When you come up with an oral care and treatment plan, be prepared to explain it to your patient and his caregiver every single time they show up for an appointment.
When treating patients living with dementia, a little extra patience goes a long, long way.
As much as possible, never show any sign of frustration when attending to a dental patient with dementia.
Considering how they tend to be on edge, something as simple as a sigh of exasperation or an annoyed non-verbal action could trigger their anxiety, and it would be all downhill from there.
It may be true that treating dental patients with dementia is not the easiest thing to do, especially for dentists and dental hygienists who are doing it for the first time.
However, once you get the hang of it, you should be able to provide them the professional dental care they sorely need without any hitches, even during dental emergencies.
About Dr. Salwin
Dr. Gary Salwin leads the Glendale Dental Group, Arizona. He and his team treat dental emergencies and perform a whole range of dental services. He has been practicing dentistry for more than 36 years.