Oral Health Across the Generations

Oral Health Across the Generations

It’s the 1930s in Holland and your mother is taking you and your three siblings for an appointment. You watch as she runs her finger along the family coat closet, pulls out the oldest coat she owns and puts it on. This is the coat she wears when she must take the children to the dentist. It is the first tactic in her end game of whittling down the fees from the dentist appointment that day, without sacrificing the needed visit for her children.

That is a story of Grandma, my Oma, when her mother—my great-grandmother—would take her to the dentist. After learning that knowledge and practices of oral health are passed down from generation to generation, I decided to investigate by asking the elders in my life some questions about their oral health while growing up, as well as reflect on my own oral health habits.

According to Grandma, during that time of life, people never went to the dentist regularly nor was it for prevention. A visit was usually only paid to the dentist as a result of pain or discomfort in the mouth. When I reflect on oral health, even though today the messaging is to visit the dentist for a check-up at least once a year in order to catch problems before they occur, many still only make their way to the dentist when a painful problem occurs inside the mouth.

Grandma has lived with dentures for most of her life—at the age of 26 she had her original teeth pulled and replaced, partly due to a dentist who pulled several of her teeth without need, just to be sure he pulled the one with the cavity. Fortunately, dental practices and technology have improved enough for us to not have to worry that our healthy teeth will be pulled repeatedly by mistake. While waiting for her replacement teeth she had to spend about four months without any teeth at all. Teeth help us to eat and digest our food, to drink and to speak. When I asked if she found any of those daily tasks challenging, she could only recall that it was a soured time in her life that she tried to forget long ago.

My father remembers going to the dentist for the first time when he was 16, with about 12 cavities to his name. My mother went when she was about 7 years old because of at least one cavity. She was taught to brush in the morning but has no recollection of being told to brush before bedtime and no flossing was ever done as a child. Today we are told it is important to brush twice a day for two minutes, morning and night, and floss once a day. Times have changed and there is improved messaging around oral health, but there’s still much to learn. My parents now must be very careful about what and how they eat food, for fear of chipping or losing a tooth. Although we call false teeth “replacements”, nothing can truly replace our original teeth in the same way.

When I recall my own oral health habits as a child, I was taught to brush twice a day, morning and night. However, I would often brush my teeth before breakfast—not realizing this was counterproductive to cleaning the food away from my teeth after eating. Flossing was not on my radar at all. As it turns out, flossing accounts for cleaning one third of teeth surfaces, which makes it an extremely important part of maintaining a healthy, clean mouth.

Although access to information on oral health has greatly increased, we learn most of our oral health habits from our families. Each generation has its own story and lessons to pass on to future generations. Learn what you can do to make oral health fun for your own children and make it family time to bond with your child. When they see you brushing, they want to, too! Remember: these brushing and flossing habits you teach them will last their lifetime and beyond.

Happy Oral Health Month everyone! What stories about oral health do you have, either about yourself or a family member? If you’d like to share it with us here at NWTLC, please send it to stephanie@nwtliteracy.ca for a chance to see it published in another issue of our e-news.”

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