How to Assist a Loved One with Oral Hygiene

Chad Birt

Written by Chad Birt on Mon May 22 2023.

Man helping other man brush teeth.

Caring for a loved one with Alzheimer’s disease or another type of dementia presents unique challenges. One of those challenges is helping your loved one maintain their oral hygiene. 

As these diseases progress, your loved one may forget how to brush and floss or forget why good oral hygiene is important in the first place. It can be hard seeing these changes take place, but there are different things you can do to make your responsibilities easier.

To understand the best way to help a loved one, we reached out to several experts, including:

  • Sharhrooz Yazdani, DDS: CEO and Director of Costello Family Dentistry in Ontario, Toronto Canada

  • Kristen Galloway: a licensed occupational therapist and certified dementia care specialist who owns Functional Movement, a private occupational therapy practice in Ponte Vedra, FL

  • Mark Joseph: Founder of Parental Queries and a former family caretaker

Below is a list of simple tips and tricks for assisting your loved one with oral hygiene.

What You’ll Need

If you don’t already have them, we recommend having the following products on hand as you help your loved one with their oral hygiene routine.

  • Toothpaste: Fights cavity-causing bacteria and polishes teeth

  • A soft bristle toothbrush: Gently removes plaque from teeth without damaging enamel 

  • Dental floss, floss picks, or a proxabrush: Gets in-between teeth to remove trapped food that can cause cavities 

  • Antibacterial mouthwash: To remove any remaining plaque

  • Denture care: If you’re loved one has dentures, this is an important step to ensure they stay clean and odor free

Establish a Regular Oral Hygiene Routine

The American Dental Association (ADA) recommends all adults brush their teeth twice daily and floss once a day. If you want to make brushing and flossing a habit, you need to incorporate them into your caregiving schedule. “Routine is the keyword!” Galloway said. “Consistency is key in working with individuals with dementia. Create a routine and stick with it!”

Dr. Yazdani agrees. “Routines are about being consistent with your actions and performing them at times of the day when your loved one is most motivated. For example, brushing your loved one’s teeth when they wake in the morning is usually easiest and feels natural for most.” 

“Try to reserve time each day to take care of oral hygiene with your loved one. Their energy levels may fluctuate, so it can be beneficial to do the second round of teeth brushing well before your loved one settles in for their bedtime routine.”

Set Out All of the Necessary Materials

It’s easy for people with Alzheimer’s disease and dementia to lose focus or become overwhelmed. You may be able to reduce some confusion and minimize disagreements by prepping the supplies in advance. “Only set out the necessary supplies,” said Galloway. “Clear the area of any other items that could lead to confusion.”

Caregiver Tip

“If your loved one forgets how to brush their teeth, or they get confused, set out a second toothbrush as a prop,” Dr. Yazdani said. “Your loved one may find that “mirroring” your actions helps jog their memory.”

Remind Your Loved One How to Brush and Floss

After setting out the necessary supplies, remind your loved one of the process of brushing and flossing. “You may want to use visual cues to help them remember the sequence of steps,” Galloway said. “For example, a chart with pictures and steps in numbered order can help them stay on track.”

It may also help to remind them about why good oral hygiene is important. “Instead of just sticking the toothbrush in your loved one’s mouth, discuss with them the last time they brushed their teeth,” Dr. Yazdani said. “Then, remind them it’s time to brush them again and explain why it’s essential. This can prevent arguments and make brushing and flossing easier.”

Observe Their Oral Hygiene Routine

Encourage your loved one to brush their teeth. At first, it may help to apply the toothpaste to their toothbrush yourself. “Show your loved one how much toothpaste to use and how long they should brush,” said Joseph. “Then, provide assistance or supervision, so that process can be done safely.”

“Allow your loved one to perform as much of the task as possible,” Galloway said. But remember that everyone’s capabilities vary. Flossing, in particular, can be more challenging than brushing. 

“It’s a more intimate activity and requires nimble movements of the fingers, which can be daunting for older people,” Dr. Yazdani said. “Using floss picks, toothpicks, or proxabrushes can make flossing easier. A proxabrush has an extended handle so you can floss your loved one’s teeth for them.”

“You want to avoid touching your loved one, especially around the mouth, if they don’t consent,” Dr. Yazdani said. “If your loved one refuses to brush or floss their teeth, take a time out and try again later.”

Commonly Asked Questions

1) What if my loved one has dentures?

If your loved one has dentures, oral hygiene remains important!

“Make sure to follow instructions from the dentist,” Dr. Yazdani said. “However, brushing and flossing twice daily should be standard practice. Removable dentures should be soaked outside the mouth in either denture cleaner or a water-vinegar solution. If your loved one has removable dentures, you can remove and brush them yourself.”

2) Are there other ways to keep my loved one’s teeth and gums healthy?

Some people with neurodegenerative illnesses are unable to brush or floss on their own. Still, there are ways to keep your loved one’s teeth and gums healthy.

“If your loved one refuses to brush or floss, make sure they drink lots of water,” Dr. Yazdani said. “Another tip is to use textured teeth wipes to help clean the teeth. Of course, regular visits to the dentist are the best supplemental oral health care for someone who isn’t able to maintain it at home.”

Galloway recommends adding several other items to your oral health care kit, including “disposable oral swabs, which are softer than toothbrushes and more accepted by people with dementia. Or rinsing with mouthwash.”


If your loved one has Alzheimer’s disease or dementia, hygienic activities like brushing and flossing aren’t always easy. Thankfully, with a little bit of planning and lots of practice, you can master the art and make it part of your daily routine. 

Galloway recommends keeping the following five factors at the top of mind:

  • Prepare in advance (set the toothbrush, dental floss, and toothpaste out)

  • Set aside plenty of time (so no one feels stressed out or rushed)

  • Provide simple instructions

  • Use visual aids, such as pictures, text, or props (for clarity)

  • Use gestures to show the person what you are asking them to do

  • Be patient and kind

  • Remember that some days will be harder than others

By following these tips and tricks, you can keep your loved one’s teeth and gums healthy for years to come.

Need Help?

Are you trying to pinpoint the best oral care products for your loved one, or have other caregiving-related questions? Talk to our Care Team, available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Call us at (800) 696-CARE, email us at, or chat with us using our live chat tool at the bottom of the webpage.

Did you find this article helpful?Share it, print it or have it mailed to you!

Other Articles You May Like

6 Effective Strategies for Managing Mean or Aggressive Dementia Behaviors

There are several strategies you can use when dealing with a rude, angry, or mean dementia patient. A calculated approach can reduce conflicts, improve communication, and make life as a caregiver much easier.

Medically Reviewed by Kiera Powell, R.N.

Read More >

10 Game and Activity Ideas for Adults with Alzheimer's or Dementia

We've created a list of 10 games and activities for adults with Alzheimer's or dementia. The key to all the games on this list is that you can't perform them incorrectly, which will give your loved one a sense of success and satisfaction.

Read More >
Chad Birt
Chad Birt

Chad Birt is a freelance medical writer who resides in Astoria, Oregon. When he isn't behind a keyboard, you can find him hiking, camping, or birdwatching with his wife Ella and their two dogs, Diane and Thoreau.