Dear Family Advisor

My Mom Refuses to Go to the Dentist! Should I Make Her?

Last updated: Jul 19, 2011

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My mom is 82 years old and hasn't been to the dentist in five years or more. She says she goes to enough doctors, but she can't eat anything cold, chews on one side, and doesn't even brush her teeth. I think she's afraid her teeth are so bad that they'll pull the rest of her teeth, which they probably will. I'm worried she could really get sick from this neglect, but I'm also tired of nagging about it. I swear she's doing this just to be stubborn.

There's so much to keep up with as a caregiver, so choose your battles. While I agree with you that dental hygiene is important, you might have to prioritize what your mother's health risks are and go from there. Don't let this turn into a battle of the wills -- which is easy to do.

Many people (like me) don't like going to be dentist, and it's difficult to feel that all you do is go from one doctor to the next. You're going to have to try to woo your mom into slow progress. Even if all she does is get regular cleanings, that will help. If you do your homework and find a dentist/hygienist she likes (and who has a large elder client population or is someone her friends recommend), that'll make it easier.

I'd also try the tandem method: "Mom, I'm getting my teeth cleaned on Tuesday. That's our errand day, so you'll have to come along, too -- and you might as well get yours cleaned while you're there." Then reward her with lunch at her favorite restaurant or a visit with a friend for a few hours. All of us need bribes to do things we don't like, so do what you can to sweeten the deal.

Call the dentist and give him or her a heads-up on how to best treat your mom. If she likes attention, then shower her with it. If they shouldn't chastise her for not caring for her teeth, then let them know that as well. The goal is to get her to go regularly. Many people balk at getting in the chair, but once they're there they cave to an authority figure and do as they're told, so don't be surprised if she turns out to be Miss A+ Dental Patient.

However, I don't think I'd nag about this one if I were you. It's difficult to get people to change their dental habits, especially when they're older and have other health issues. Besides, the damage has most likely been done. You may have to just settle for getting her teeth cleaned (try to get her in every three to four months) with a fluoride treatment, and then deal with issues as they arise.

On the home front, does your mother live with you, or does anyone come to help her at night or in the morning? Could you (or they) get in a habit of brushing your teeth with your mother in the bathroom with you? She may just be out of practice. Try an electric toothbrush or a smaller and softer toothbrush. See if you can figure out why she's avoiding this basic health habit and try to nudge her back into it without making a big fuss. If all else fails, see if you can get her to wrap a finger in gauze and a tad of toothpaste and wipe her mouth out with it. It takes less time and isn't as much work, and at this point anything is better than nothing.

Also, is she just out of energy at the end of the day? Does she fall asleep in front of the television? Does she lack a morning or nighttime routine? Try to pin down the reason she's avoiding the whole dental scene.

Sometimes we have to coax our elders along just as we would a toddler. Going to the dentist isn't fun, so do all you can to make it at least tolerable. If she needs you to hold her hand, give her your iPod to listen to music, or plan a treat for afterward, then do it. Anything you can do to help her get over this fear -- and it's most likely fear. Sometimes it just takes a little togetherness to face things we'd rather avoid.