Oral Care for People With Dementia: Tips for Helping a Loved One

senior man with dementia brushing teeth

Add dental hygiene to a loved one’s care plan with these tips for oral care for people with dementia.

Oral hygiene is an important part of maintaining overall health. Poor dental health can lead to bad breath, gingivitis, tooth decay, or other problems and can make chewing or talking more difficult. The daily oral care needs for a person with Alzheimer’s or other form of dementia can change as the disease progresses. Over time, the person may not remember how to brush their teeth and may not be able to communicate if they are experiencing tooth or gum problems. Visiting Care Giving Services, a provider of expert dementia care in Chesterfield and the surrounding areas, shares recommendations for oral care for people with dementia.

General Tips for Maintaining Oral Care for People With Dementia

If a loved one is in the early stages of dementia, start by establishing a routine of good oral care, including brushing, flossing, denture cleaning, and dental checkups. The person may need reminders to keep up with the routine, or they may need your supervision to make sure all of the tasks are completed. Modeling what to do can be an effective approach as well.

In the later stages of dementia, the individual may forget the many steps required for effective oral care or may forget why it is important to brush their teeth. It may be necessary for you to take on the responsibility of their oral care.

To best support a loved one’s dental care, it will be helpful to work closely with their dentist. The dentist or dental hygienist will be able to recommend products or techniques you can try at home. Here are some tips for maintaining oral care for people with dementia:

  • Location. While the bathroom is a traditional location for tooth brushing, it may be easier to find another location, such as the kitchen sink or seated at a table with a bowl and cup of water.
  • When to brush. It is recommended to brush teeth in the morning and before bedtime, after all food and medicines have been consumed. However, when assisting a person with dementia, you may need to find a time that is best for the individual. Finding routine times each day will help you build consistency, but remain flexible in case things don’t go as intended.
  • Go slowly. When helping another person with oral care, it’s important to proceed slowly. Talk about what you are going to do before each step, so the person is not taken by surprise.
  • Be gentle. Do not force the person to open his or her mouth. If the person resists, take breaks, or try again at another time.
  • Get professional dental cleanings. Insurance often covers two dental cleanings per year. Adding additional dental cleanings can help prevent plaque and tartar buildup, especially if it is becoming difficult to brush the person’s teeth regularly. A dentist will also have the opportunity to monitor the person’s gums and teeth for any signs of complication or pain.

Brushing Tips

When brushing the person’s teeth, here are some ideas to try to make the process a bit smoother:

  • Model brushing. Start by showing how you brush your own teeth. If the person needs assistance, hand them a toothbrush with a little toothpaste on it, and place your hand over theirs to begin brushing the teeth. This action may help them continue on their own.
  • Position. When brushing the person’s teeth, it can help to have them sit in front of you while you stand behind them.
  • Toothpaste. Fluoride toothpaste is recommended unless the person is likely to swallow it. In that case, speak with the dentist for suggestions on what to use instead. There are different brands of toothpastes including some that do not include fluoride.
  • Toothbrushes. Use a soft toothbrush. Work with whichever style the person you love prefers. If you are managing the brushing, you may find that some toothbrushes are easier to maneuver. Here are a few toothbrush styles to consider:
    • A children’s toothbrush, which is smaller and has extra soft bristles, may make it easier to reach areas inside the mouth.
    • Some people prefer electric toothbrushes, although a person with Alzheimer’s may find these confusing.
    • A larger-handled toothbrush may be easier for an older adult to grip.
  • Denture care. Dentures need to be taken out daily to be brushed and rinsed. While taking care of the dentures, this may be a good time to brush the gums and roof of the mouth gently with a soft brush.

Flossing Tips

Dentists recommend daily flossing for oral health, but if using dental floss is too difficult, ask for other suggestions. Some other options include floss holders, interdental brushes to help clean between the teeth, or a water flossing machine.

Mouthwash can also help prevent plaque and tartar buildup and may be helpful for dry mouth as well. Avoid mouthwash if the person swallows it, and ask the dentist for other ideas.

Other Concerns

Even with optimal oral care, complications can still arise. Individuals with Alzheimer’s or dementia may not be able to communicate if they are experiencing pain or other problems in their mouths. Oral health issues can worsen quickly; speak with a dentist to determine if there are any problems that need to be addressed. Here are some things to watch for:

  • Dry mouth. As people get older, they may have more trouble with dry mouth, which can make chewing and swallowing more difficult due to a reduced amount of saliva. Some medications can cause dry mouth as well. There are products to help with dry mouth; ask the dentist for recommendations to see what will work best for the person you love.
  • Signs of problems. An older adult with dementia may not be able to tell you if they’re experiencing tooth or gum pain, but they may show there is a problem with the following signs:
    • Rubbing the cheek
    • Flinching when washing the face or shaving
    • Refusing to put in dentures
    • Avoiding eating
    • Having trouble sleeping
    • Moaning or yelling
    • Increased agitation

Other Oral Health Tips

Brushing, flossing, and denture care are important, and there are other tips that can help with oral health as well:

  • Water. Drinking water or rinsing the mouth after eating, especially sweets, can help rinse out food particles and bacteria that can lead to plaque buildup on the teeth. Water helps with overall hydration and may help with dry mouth too.
  • Crisp vegetables and fruits. At the end of a meal, eating crisp fruits and vegetables, such as apples or celery, can help brush plaque from the teeth. Follow with some water to help rinse the mouth as well. If the person has swallowing issues, check with the doctor or dentist.

How Home Care Can Help

Visiting Care Giving Services cares about the physical health as well as oral care for people with dementia. Our specialized Alzheimer’s and dementia care supports individuals who prefer to live in the familiarity and comfort of their own homes. Our compassionate and skilled caregivers are available to assist the person you love with personal care needs, including oral care, eating, medication reminders, and more. Contact us at (636) 493-9058 to learn more about our dementia care in Chesterfield and the surrounding areas.