Topic page with information on making decisions about healthcare if your relative is unable to consent and where you can go to find out more.
Do you find it hard to take your family member to the dentist?
What can be done to make it easier?
Being healthy is important to all of us, including having a healthy mouth and teeth. However, supporting someone with learning disabilities whose behaviour can challenge to look after their teeth and go to dentist appointments can be a stressful experience. Families might worry that their relative isn’t getting the dental care that they need to stay well. Dental pain can also cause an increase in behaviour that challenges. Here are some things you can do that might make visits to the dentist easier, for you and your relative.
Search for special services
You might want to consider using a specialised dentist. You can search on the General Dental Council for a specialist dentist near you here: Specialist lists (gdc-uk.org)
Help your relative get used to the dentist
Medical settings can be scary to people with learning disabilities, especially if they process sensory information differently. You could ask your dentist if you can visit the surgery a few times before the appointment. Try sitting in the waiting room, meeting the receptionist and dentist, sitting in the dentist’s chair, and turning the lights on and off.
Practicing procedures on a teddy or doll can help lessen anxiety around what will happen at the dentist. Some dentists have toy medical instruments so your relative could ‘practice’ on themselves.
Use resources to prepare them
A picture story could help someone to understand what will happen at the dentist. It is also a useful way to show how to behave in that situation, e.g. sitting quietly in the waiting room. The National Autistic Society has information about making and using a picture story about going to the dentist here: – Going to the dentist (autism.org.uk) You can find resources about visiting the dentist by searching online. For example, on www.easyhealth.org.uk there is a section on teeth.
There are other practical preparations that you can make. For example taking sunglasses to guard against bright lights, and planning a stop signal so your relative can indicate if they need to take a break. Some people also find it difficult to open and close their mouths at the right time – actions like this can be practised ahead of an appointment.
Plan reasonable adjustments with your dentist
The Equality Act 2010 says that services must make reasonable adjustments so that people with additional needs receive the care they need – just like everyone else. You could talk to the dentist before the appointment to plan these adjustments. Some examples are:
- Booking the first or last appointment of the day, so the surgery is not busy and there is less wait time. You could also ask for a longer appointment so there’s no rush.
- Asking the dentist to explain and demonstrate each procedure before it happens.
- Asking the dentist to give a ‘count down’, e.g. ’10 seconds then finished’.
- Reducing the amount of medical equipment and clothing where possible, if these make the person anxious.
- Some people may need to have a dental procedure under general anaesthetic if their anxiety would make the procedure too distressing or unsafe.
Capacity to consent to treatment
Usually the dentist would need an adult’s permission before doing any tests or giving treatment. Because your relative has a learning disability, the dentist will need to assess whether or not they have capacity to consent to or refuse treatment. E.g. does your relative understand what will happen if they don’t have the treatment? The CBF’s FAQ about healthcare has more information (see the first question).
Try to maintain good dental health
By working on everyday activities that will maintain good dental health for your relative, their need for dental work (like fillings) will be reduced. Becoming more relaxed with brushing and other similar activities might make your relative less anxious about dental treatment in general. There is also some more general information on oral hygiene for carers on Teeth TLC.
Diet is also important in keeping teeth and mouths healthy. Lots of sugary foods can cause tooth decay. Read this NHS article about lifestyle tips for healthy teeth to find out more.