Two nurses standing over elderly patient while he smiles

Potential Elderly Patient Care Challenges and How to Handle Them

Sep 12, 2018

Author: Susanna Scherer RDH

According to the University of Southern California School of Gerontology, Americans are living longer than ever in large part because of significant improvements in health care services and investments in medical research. As a result, dental hygienists can expect to see a rise in elderly patient care.

Individuals age 65 and older are considered to be among the elderly population; additionally, anyone ages 85 and over is considered to be part of the "oldest-old" population. There are many challenges that a dental hygienist may face when caring for the elderly patient population. Read on for some suggestions for overcoming issues that may arise when providing elderly patient care in the dental office.

Add Extra Time

Memory loss, hearing loss, mobility issues and an increase in oral health issues may all require that the dental hygienist spend more time on appointments for elderly patient care. Scheduling an extra 15 minutes with elderly patients will allow you more time to speak clearly, slowly and repetitively when necessary.

Also, keep in mind that for some of your elderly patients a dental appointment is not just about their oral health — it may also be a social outing. They may be looking for someone new to talk to. Give them your full attention, and the relationship you develop with elderly patients can be heartwarming and rewarding.

Take Thorough Medical Histories

Patients with impaired vision may find it difficult to read standard medical history forms. However, many older adults are perfectly sharp and independent, so always check first and ask before you assist. Creating your own large-font medical history form may make the process less stressful for elderly patients. Offering to read the questions out loud and write answers down for the patient may alleviate some difficulty.

Encourage patients to always carry a list of their medications with them to eliminate the need to recall lengthy names of prescription medications. Offering to make a copy of the list will eliminate the frustration they may experience while trying to write down medications. Not only can this be helpful when patients have dental appointments, it can also be used at medical appointments and in the event of an emergency.

Never hesitate to call the patient's' physician if you are unsure about his or her medical history. The physician will be able to confirm if the patient is cleared for dental treatment or has any special requirements such as premedication.

If a family member/caregiver brings an elderly patient for appointments, review the medical history with both the patient and the family member/caregiver present. Be sure to direct your questions to the patient, but allow the family member space to interject if the patient forgets any information.

Communicate Clearly

Hearing impairment can make dental appointments challenging for an elderly patient. Make sure that any noisy instruments are turned off when you talk with a patient, and speak slowly and clearly to help improve the likelihood that the patient will hear you. Sit upright and remove your mask when talking, in case your patient needs to read lips.

For patients who suffer from memory loss, it is important to write down all the conversation points you covered. You can prepare a take-home report using the Gum Health Physical, with notes on the treatment that was completed, any oral health findings and your home care recommendations. This will give your patient a tangible resource to recall important information following their dental appointment.

At the end of the appointment be sure to ask the patient, "What questions do you have?" If patients ask something you already discussed, it may be because they did not hear you or they might not remember. Simply repeat yourself without drawing attention to the fact that you may have already discussed the topic. It is important not to embarrass patients, and to respect their intelligence so that they will feel comfortable asking for clarification about their oral health.


  • Schedule additional appointment time so that you can dedicate your full attention and more time to elderly patients.
  • Assist elderly patients, if necessary, with medical histories so that the process is not overwhelming and yields accurate information.
  • Ask patients if they have any questions to help ensure that they know and understand their oral health needs.

Why It's Important

Elderly patient care can present unique challenges and it's important to take the aging process and other medical needs into account. Making a few simple accommodations will help you provide elderly patients with the oral health care they need for oral health.

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