There comes a time when the tides change, and we become a caregiver to those that raised us, drove us to soccer practice, dance recitals, and music lessons. They helped us brush our hair and taught us to brush our teeth. Now we are the ones helping with shopping, shuttling loved ones to doctor’s appointments, assisting with errands, and balancing checkbooks. One often overlooked (but just as important) task is helping your loved one maintain their oral health.

As a caregiver, our job is to help our loved ones stay healthy and safe. A large piece of that puzzle is to make sure they brush their teeth and continue to have regular exams and cleanings. As we age, some of us develop arthritis and lose the dexterity needed to brush our teeth properly. Some of us develop age-related memory issues making it easy to forget to care for mouths.

A broken tooth or denture can be painful, and if your parent or family member can’t effectively express what they’re feeling, they may start trading healthy foods for soft, carbohydrate-laden bread and cakes that offer little nutritional value.

But raiding their cabinets and brushing their teeth for them can strip them of what little control they still have over their lives which can result in low self-esteem and depression. With a little investigative work and patience, you can help your loved one stay healthy while allowing them some freedom.

Here are some tips for caregivers helping an elderly family member:

  • Keep up with regular dental exams – Even if your family member doesn’t have any natural teeth, it’s important for them to see a dental professional every six months. Receding bone levels can alter the fit of a denture, and many oral cancers don’t hurt. A professional exam can make sure everything looks A-OK.
  • Make brushing easy – If standing is difficult, let them brush their teeth where they’re most comfortable. Maybe sitting at the kitchen table is easier. Have your family member brush their teeth and rinse out in a bowl of water.
  • Remember to floss – It might be easy to forget, but flossing is important regardless of age. If holding dental floss is difficult, try an interdental brush (proxabrush) or floss threader to make cleaning between the teeth a little easier. Just be sure not to force an interdental brush between the teeth, or you could do more damage than good.
  • Use special toothbrushes – A quick Google search brings up many large-handled toothbrushes that make holding a toothbrush easier for someone with arthritis. Electric toothbrushes are also an excellent choice since they require less dexterity and usually have larger bases too.
  • Don’t forget the dentures – If your loved one has dentures, don’t forget to brush them! Bacteria loves to grow in dark, wet places and if dentures aren’t removed and cleaned often enough, an already compromised elderly immune system might not be able to fight off an infection. While they are being brushed, inspect them for cracks, chips, and other signs of damage that might rub or create a sore spot in your family members mouth.
  • Do a breath check – One of the many symptoms of gum disease or an infected tooth is bad breath. Regularly check your loved one’s breath discreetly. If their breath smells rancid, make an appointment for an exam.
  • Limit snacks and sugars – This might be tricky, but if you help with shopping, try to encourage fruits and vegetable over sweets and candy. An occasional treat is fine, but a heavy diet of sugary, starchy foods isn’t healthy for anyone.

Becoming a caregiver is both an honor and a significant life change. It can be overwhelming but knowing that you can keep your loved one at home a while longer is a great reward. Remember that change can be hard for the elderly, too, especially if they have a cognitive impairment like dementia or Alzheimer’s. With these tips, helping your aging parent or family member keep their mouth healthy is one less thing to worry about.

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