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Navigating the Frustrations Posed by Daily Routines for Someone Living with Dementia: A Closer Look at Brushing Teeth

Imagine having a day when brushing your teeth felt like an AP exam.  Living with dementia transforms once-simple tasks into insurmountable challenges and breeds frustrations that can boil into behaviors that impact not only the individuals living with dementia, but also those who care for them. In this blog, we’ll explore the difficulties individuals with dementia may encounter with even the simplest of daily tasks and discuss effective strategies caregivers can employ to ease these frustrations, preserving the dignity and well-being of their loved ones.

Understanding the Challenges:

Dementia, a progressive cognitive decline, permeates various aspects of daily life, affecting motor skills, memory, and communication. Even the most banal task of brushing teeth becomes an unsolvable puzzle due to several factors:

  1. Memory Loss: Individuals with dementia often grapple with memory loss, making it challenging to remember the steps involved in routine activities. Consider Sarah, a 75-year-old woman living with mid-stage dementia. Once proud of her oral hygiene routine, Sarah now stands in front of the bathroom mirror, toothbrush in hand, staring blankly at herself. She has forgotten why she stepped in front of the basin, leaving her feeling disoriented and frustrated.
  2. Cognitive Decline: The decline in cognitive functions affects problem-solving abilities. Sarah attempts to put toothpaste on her toothbrush but hesitates. The logical reasoning required for this simple task becomes an insurmountable challenge, a brush in one hand a tube in the other, a mirror staring back.  How do the three connect? Confusion and a growing sense of inadequacy build.
  3. Sensory Impairments: Dementia can lead to sensory impairments, affecting perception and coordination. As Sarah attempts to brush her teeth, the sensation of holding the toothbrush feels awkward in her hands.  Where and how hard to squeeze the tube are no longer intuitive.
  4. Communication Difficulties: Expressing needs and understanding instructions become increasingly problematic. Sarah’s daughter, Emily, noticing her mother’s frustration, attempts to guide her through the process. However, Sarah struggles to understand the instructions, leading to further frustration and a breakdown in communication.

Emotions and Behaviors:

The frustration stemming from the inability to perform routine tasks can manifest in various emotions, often leading to anger, resistance, or challenging behaviors. Understanding these emotions is crucial for caregivers to provide compassionate and effective support:

  1. Loss of Independence: Sarah, like many individuals with dementia, experiences a profound loss of independence. The once-automatic task of brushing her teeth now requires assistance, evoking a sense of helplessness and frustration.
  2. Fear and Anxiety: Sarah is afraid of making mistakes or not understanding what is expected of her, amplifying her frustration.
  3. Communication Breakdown: Sarah feels misunderstood, leading to a breakdown in communication and heightened emotional responses.

Caregiver Strategies:

By implementing thoughtful strategies, caregivers can help ease frustrations, enhance the individual’s sense of dignity, and foster a positive caregiving environment:

  1. Establish a Routine: Creating a consistent routine helps individuals with dementia anticipate and understand daily activities. A set time for brushing teeth can provide a sense of structure and familiarity.
  2. Simplify the Environment: Minimize distractions and simplify the environment. Use a clutter-free bathroom with well-lit areas to enhance visibility and reduce confusion.
  3. Provide Visual and Verbal Cues: Use visual aids like a step-by-step guide or pictures to illustrate the toothbrushing process. Provide simple, clear verbal instructions, breaking down the task into manageable steps.
  4. Offer Assistance with Dignity: Approach the task with patience and empathy. Offer assistance in a gentle manner, respecting the individual’s dignity. Allow them to participate as much as possible, promoting a sense of control.
  5. Use Adaptive Tools: Explore adaptive tools like toothbrushes with larger handles or automatic toothpaste dispensers to make the process more manageable for individuals with motor challenges.
  6. Be Attuned to Non-Verbal Cues: Pay attention to non-verbal cues such as body language and facial expressions. These can provide valuable insights into the individual’s comfort level and emotional state during the task.


In the journey of dementia care, even seemingly simple tasks like brushing teeth become monumental challenges that can cause frustration and lead to anger and behaviors. By implementing thoughtful strategies, caregivers can ease the frustrations and transform daily routines into opportunities for shared experiences, preserving dignity, and enhancing the quality of life for those living with dementia.

Oasis Senior Advisors


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Paul and Susan Doyle

Certified Senior Advisor®

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