7 Tips for Working With Senior Patients

December 13, 2017 Rieva Lesonsky

What percentage of your dental practice’s patients are senior citizens? Whatever the number, it’s likely to increase in the coming years. According to the American Dental Association, adults age 65 and will account for a growing number of dental patients in the next decades.

Seniors have specialized dental needs. For example, dry mouth, which is common in older people, can increase the risk of tooth decay. So can receding gums that expose the roots of teeth. Many seniors also have chronic medical conditions such as high blood pressure or heart disease that can contribute to dental problems.

At the same time their need for dental care is growing, seniors often face challenges that make it difficult for them to maintain good oral health. Arthritis and vision problems can make it difficult to brush and floss. Mobility issues or transportation problems can prevent seniors from seeing the dentist regularly. For patients who have cognitive issues, such as dementia, the difficulties are even greater.

Here are some tips to help your dental practice provide better service to senior patients.

1. Allow extra time for appointments. Patients with cognitive issues may need more time to fully understand a procedure. Even senior patients without cognitive challenges generally enjoy socializing with the dental staff. Keep them happy and build relationships by building in some additional time for chatting.

2. Provide a calm environment. Dental patients with dementia or hearing problems can become agitated and confused in a noisy, bustling environment. Set aside a quiet treatment room for their appointments.

3. Communicate clearly. If a patient has hearing loss, removing your face mask, looking directly at them, and speaking loudly and clearly will help get your message across. To avoid startling the patient, use a gentle tap on the shoulder to get their attention before speaking. Some patients will want to turn off their hearing aids before noisy procedures such as drilling.

4. Adjust for vision loss. Older eyes need brighter light to see, so keep your waiting areas and treatment rooms well lit. Enlarge images or provide magnifying devices so patients can clearly see X-rays, computer images or written directions you're showing them. Using 14-point type on all of your printed materials will help seniors read them easily.

5. Prevent falls. Keep main traffic areas clear of equipment, trash cans and chairs. Use low-pile carpeting or hard-surface flooring so patients with canes or walkers can move easily. Avoid area rugs or mats; they can cause trip-and-fall accidents.

6. Build a relationship with caregivers. If a caregiver brings the patient to the appointment, having them in the room during the treatment can ease the patient’s anxiety and improve understanding. Make sure the caregiver, as well as the patient, understands any post-treatment plans and can help the patient follow these instructions.

7. Reach out. You can help keep senior patients on a regular oral care schedule by using Lighthouse 360. Using the method they prefer, such as email or phone, the app automatically contacts patients when it’s time to make a hygiene appointment. (You can also use the Family Messaging option to communicate with the senior’s caregiver.) Once the appointment is set, Lighthouse 360 can send automated reminders as the date approaches. If a patient doesn’t respond to the reminders, Lighthouse 360’s follow-up list tool automatically notifies your front office staff.

Has a senior patient stopped coming in for appointments altogether? Lighthouse 360 automatically sends dormant patients recall letters and emails to get them back on track.

Providing dental care to seniors can help them live longer, happier lives—and will keep your practice healthy, too.

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