Nearly 31% of the population in the United States is 55 and older1. Advancing age, along with associated health factors and various age-related issues putsseniors at increased risk for oral health problems. According to the American Dental Association, dental disease is one of the most common reasons for visits to the emergency room. Couple these factors together with lacking or poor dental insurance, chronic health issues, poor mobility, cognitive impairment, and lack of transportation, and it all adds up to a senior health care crisis.
The most common chronic concerns are:
- Dental caries
- Heart disease
- Root sensitivity
- Gum disease
- Ill-fitting dentures and/or dental appliances
More than half of American seniors state it’s been greater than one year since their last dental visit. Cost is cited as the number one barrier to pursuing and/or accepting treatment. Ironically, seniors lose their dental benefits at precisely the age they need them most. Upon retiring, corporate dental benefits cease, leaving individuals with Medicare coverage. As most are aware, Medicare does not cover routine dental care. Procedures aimed at helping individuals maintain their teeth: dental cleanings and even root canals or fixed bridges, are not covered. When faced with such decisions and with a limited income, dental care is deemed expendable, and often the initial health-related expense they eliminate.
According to the National Center for Health Statistics, approximately 1 in 5 seniors have untreated caries, with about 66% with active gum disease. As we are aware, putting off dental treatment leads to greater discomfort and greater cost.
What can we do to mitigate the effects of the dental crisis among seniors? Prevention is always the best route for preventing dental disease. Every patient who seeks dental care should leave with an understanding of how to maintain proper oral health and prevent future disease.
Just as we have retirement financial planning, dental and health care planning should be considered as well. Often patients begin to think about this only weeks before retirement. A strong educational foundation within your practice that emphasizes addressing restorative treatment in the decade prior to retirement, can help avert major dental crises in later years. This allows patients to utilize their dental benefits while they also have additional income.
For patients who failed to plan and find themselves already in a dental crisis, consider offering a dental savings plan to allow for preventative care and discounts on major treatment. Payment plans could be another option for patients in good standing.
Familiarize yourself with community-based programs in your region so you have resources to recommend for those who are unable to seek treatment in your practice. State dental associations frequently have a list of resources to help the indigent and income challenged.
Additional resources to consider that may be available in your area:
Federally Qualified Health Centers (FQHC)
Christian Medical & Dental Association2
Missions of Mercy
Local Dental/Dental Hygiene/Dental Assisting programs
Local Health Department
The need for senior care is great, and while the sad reality is we cannot fix everyone, we should be adequately equipped with educational resources, payment options, policies, and referring options to make palliative care dentistry, at the bare minimum, available for all.
Her clinical and support team experiences are the inspiration for her writing and the motivation for coaching clients to success. She is a regular contributor to various publications within dentistry and beyond. In addition to feeding the homeless, starting a non-profit, and being involved in her church and other community organizations, she sings professionally and enjoys several creative outlets. She resides in Florida where she enjoys the company of her husband, three children, and four beautiful grandchildren.
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