Whenever I get my teeth cleaned, my fantastic dental hygienist, Joni and I start talking about elders and caregiving. (Well, yes, it is hard to talk when you are getting your teeth cleaned, but we work around it.) Not only is she a specialist for caring for people with dental sensitivity like me, but she has her own very real experience with aging family, complicated illnesses and solving caregiving issues. Over the years, we have shared stories and frustrations and support to keep finding elder caregiving solutions.
Among the many gaps in care that seniors experience, dental care can be sadly on the back burner. Joni pointed out to me that many elders face multiple difficulties getting dental care. They cannot afford to go to the dentist and have dental problems assessed or treated. Medicare does not cover dental treatment. Medicaid in most states is required to provide dental care for children; however it is optional to provide dental coverage for adults, therefore it is very limited. In addition, consider how complicated certain medical conditions, such as Parkinson’s Disease, can make a routine teeth cleaning. An advanced tremor, involuntary movement or rhythmic muscle contractions can make delicate tooth scaling and polishing a real challenge.
For older adults who receive daily care from a caregiver either at home or in an assisted living, daily dental cleaning can be expected, but does not always happen. Elders may insist that they can do it themselves. However, many issues can interfere with a thorough job: decline in dexterity and flexibility, poor vision, and tooth or gum pain.
As described in the article With Age Comes a Mouthful of Trouble, Paula Span reports on the barriers that seniors face to get basic dental care. Even people who have had a lifetime with regular brushing and flossing and dental checkups can suddenly find themselves unable to continue in those habits. In the not so distant past, our society would expect that old people would simply lose their teeth. But, being toothless can lead to many health risks starting with a decline in nutrition that make elders more prone to illness.Those health complications cost more money. Experts agree that preventative care is more cost effective. But there is simply not funding for that basic treatment.
Many good ideas are evolving and being put into practice. More states are allowing dental hygienists to go to where seniors live to do vital cleaning rather than expecting the senior to get to the dentist’s office. Non-profit senior dental centers are opening. However, funding resources are currently in doubt.
In spite of these issues, it is clear that good dental care is essential for good overall health throughout the lifespan. Please share thoughts and solutions for making elder dental care consistent and accessible.