Dementia and Oral Health

Oral hygiene may be overlooked by older adults with dementia-related conditions or their caregivers, the Alzheimer’s Association reminds us during National Alzheimer’s Disease and Awareness Month and Family Caregivers Month.

This year marks the 30th anniversary of President Ronald Reagan’s declaration of November as Alzheimer’s awareness month, introducing the importance of Alzheimer’s education and initiating a public awareness campaign for the disease that ultimately took his life. November is also Alzheimer Association Family Caregivers Monthhonoring “those who give so much of themselves to care for individuals with Alzheimer’s.”

Older adults with dementia-related conditions like Alzheimer’s disease are at increased risk for tooth decay and gum disease and may lose their ability to brush their teeth effectively. They may pay less attention to personal grooming. Medications may complicate their oral health.

The Alzheimer’s Association and the American Dental Association offer caregiving tips at the organizations’ respective Web sites.

Proper care of the mouth and teeth can help prevent eating difficulties, digestive problems and extensive dental procedures down the road, says the Alzheimer Association personal care brochure for “assisting a person with dementia with changing daily needs.” However, brushing is sometimes difficult because a person with dementia may forget how or why it is important to take care of his or her mouth.

To assist, the brochure suggests:

Provide short, simple instructions. “Brush your teeth” by itself may be too non-specific. Break down each step by saying: “Hold your toothbrush.” “Put paste on the brush.” Then, “brush your teeth with the toothbrush.”

Use a “watch me” or “hand-over-hand” technique. Hold a brush, and show the person how to brush his or her teeth. Or, put your hand over the person’s hand, gently guiding the brush.

Monitor daily oral care. Brush teeth or dentures after each meal, and floss teeth daily. Remove and clean dentures every night. Very gently brush the person’s gums, tongue and roof of the mouth. Investigate any signs of mouth discomfort during mealtime. The person may refuse to eat or make strained facial expressions while eating. These signs may point to mouth pain or dentures that don’t fit properly.

Keep up with regular dental visits for as long as possible. A dental care routine is essential for healthy teeth. Ask the dentist for suggestions or items that may help make dental care easier.

The American Dental Association also offers resources for adults over 60 at, including caregiving for a disabled or elderly loved one. “You may have a parent, spouse or friend who has difficulty maintaining a healthy mouth on their own. How can you help? Two things are critical:

Help them keep their mouth clean with reminders to brush and floss daily.

Make sure they get to a dentist regularly.”

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