Dad can’t brush his teeth

Is dementia making oral care difficult?

Unfortunately, this isn’t a task to let go. Poor mouth care leads to cavities and gum disease, and then to toothaches, sore gums, and a disinterest in food. It can also contribute to a deadly infection, “aspiration pneumonia.” Even if the person you care for is no longer eating, bacteria in the saliva slip down the throat into the lungs.

Toothpaste and brushes

Avoid fluoride toothpaste. And mouthwash. These are not healthy if swallowed. Instead, use just water or a baking soda–based toothpaste. For a better grip, look for a large-handled toothbrush or use an electric one.

Tips for brushing teeth

  • Prepare their toothbrush for them.
  • Model tooth brushing. Put your toothbrush in your mouth. See if they can follow along. If not, have your loved one sit while you sit or stand behind them. Put your hand on top of theirs to help them brush. Explain each step as you go.
  • Try to also brush his or her tongue and the roof of the mouth. Mucus here can harbor harmful bacteria. (Even people with dentures need to have their gums and tongue—and dentures—cleaned.)
  • Rather than cleaning teeth in the bathroom, consider sitting at the kitchen table with a bowl and water. It’s a friendlier, more spacious room. You might add calming music or a special toy to hold.

If brushing doesn’t work

Don’t force your relative. Try just wiping the teeth and gums. A cotton swab, a “toothette” (sponge on a stick), or a cloth wrapped around your finger and dipped in water can be very effective. Use this approach only if you are sure your loved one won’t bite! Call the dentist for further ideas if none of these works.

Is basic hygiene a challenge? If so, give us a call. At Debra Levy Eldercare Associates, we have a lot of experience working with people in the advanced stages of dementia. You don’t have to do this alone. As the Metro DC experts in family caregiving, we can guide you to get the help you need. Phone us at 301-593-5285.