Seniors struggle to access adequate dental care

Mary Otto

About Mary Otto

Mary Otto, a Washington, D.C.-based freelancer, is AHCJ's topic leader on oral health and the author of "Teeth: The Story of Beauty, Inequality, and the Struggle for Oral Health in America." She can be reached at mary@healthjournalism.org.

Photo: Maggie Osterberg via Flickr

Photo: Maggie Osterberg via Flickr

Many Americans lose their private dental benefits when they retire.

But Medicare, the nation’s health insurance program for seniors, does not cover routine dental procedures.

The situation leaves millions of elders, living on fixed incomes, making hard choices about when to seek care – and, as in Thelma Chappell’s case, postponing a dental visit until the pain gets too bad to ignore.

The Texas retiree told reporter Hanah Cho, a special contributor for The Dallas Morning News, that she lived with a persistent toothache for a month. When the ache began spreading to her ear, she started searching for an affordable clinic.

Luckily, Chappell located a grant-funded dental program run by a faith-based organization and staffed by faculty and students from Texas A&M University Baylor College of Dentistry and dental assistants from a local career college.

At the clinic, Chappell was grateful to have the diseased tooth extracted. But the experience left her with lingering concerns about the shortage of dental care for seniors.

“After doing everything else, there isn’t sufficient funds for dental care,” Chappell explained to Cho after her treatment. “You decide whether you’ll do dental work or you’ll eat. It’s unfair, but I found myself in that situation. I worked all my life.”

Cho went on to provide a deeper look at the problem in her May 13 feature, “Bridging the Dental Care Gap for Seniors.”

In addition to facing financial barriers to care, seniors often face elevated risk for oral disease, as Cho pointed out in her story. Diabetes and other chronic conditions can affect oral health and vice versa. Many of the medications prescribed to seniors can cause dry mouth which can make teeth more vulnerable to decay. (For more about seniors and oral health challenges see this tip sheet.)

Cho also cited Oral Health America’s national report card on the oral health of seniors “State of Decay,” and garnered insights from advocates and researchers in her reporting.

“Dental care for seniors is one of the top three unmet needs in the Dallas area,” Martha Blaine, executive director of the Community Council of Greater Dallas told her.

But Chappell and the other patients Cho met at the Texas A&M University Baylor clinic, run by the North Dallas Shared Ministries, kept the story very personal.

Eduardo Guerra, 78, “said he received treatment for the first time in his life at the clinic two months ago. His daughter, a nun who works at a local charity, told him about the clinic and urged him to go,” Cho wrote.

“During his latest visit, Guerra got a cleaning and a filling. “I want to keep my teeth as long as they stay on,” he said, speaking through a Spanish interpreter.

For her part, Chappell told Cho she would like to see more dental resources and benefits for older adults.

“You can go see all the doctors you want but as a long as your teeth are the problem you’re not going to get well,” Chappell said.

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