It’s no secret that many older Americans are struggling with the high cost of quality healthcare these days. While nearly every citizen over the age of 65 has some level of Medicare coverage available to them, it only covers some of the increasing bills seniors are incurring. And, with Americans living longer than ever before, this challenge is only going to grow as time goes on.
One area that has received a lot of attention lately — with no solution on the horizon from Medicare — is the lack of routine and non-medical dental care for seniors. Most Medicare plans don’t cover dental at all, and the few options that do exist are limited. Private insurance is available, but the premiums can be cost-prohibitive for most seniors on fixed incomes.
As a result, many seniors simply go without adequate dental care and are forced to pay out of pocket for services if and when they’re needed.
Why is dental care so important for seniors?
Quality dental care is vital for everyone, not just adults over 65. However, seniors do face some unique challenges that make caring for their oral health more challenging and, potentially, more important than the average.
Weakened immune system
For one thing, as we age, our immune system begins to weaken. This is a systemic issue, not isolated to the mouth. However, the teeth and gums are often one of the first areas to fall victim to the body’s weakened ability to fight off infection and germs.
This is because our mouths are routinely host to millions of bacteria — some beneficial and some not — and the immune system is constantly working to maintain the population of good microbes while battling the bad. As our immune system weakens, the balance shifts and more negative effects from oral bacteria tend to pop up.
These can include everything from bad breath to cavities, as well as various forms of gum disease and even abscessed teeth.
Dry mouth (xerostomia)
Dry mouth is a very common condition affecting seniors because it’s a common side effect of many prescription drugs. The more prescriptions we take, the better the chance we’re going to suffer with dry mouth.
Saliva is an important first line of defense against harmful bacteria, it cleans the teeth and gums constantly, and aids in digestion, a significant loss in saliva production is no small matter. It’s not just uncomfortable, but it can contribute to more serious health problems if left unchecked. Among them are the same oral health issues described above.
Decreased motor control
Some seniors also deal with decreased mobility and/or control of their hands and arms, which can make formerly simple activities like brushing and flossing difficult, if not impossible. Arthritis is a leading cause of this problem, as well as degenerative diseases like Parkinson’s.
Without a plan in place to fill the gap, this inability to adequately care for our own oral health can lead to significant problems as well.
Yes, dental care is important. But, what if you still can’t afford it?
"Quality dental care is vital for everyone, not just adults over 65. However, seniors do face some unique challenges that make caring for their oral health more challenging and, potentially, more important than the average."
This is a legitimate concern for most seniors, and for good reason.
The cost of professional dental care has only risen in recent years, and there’s no reason to think that trend will change. While it’s still relatively inexpensive to take care of our teeth and gums on a daily basis, even the most routine of dental visits — the semiannual cleaning and examination — can be financially out of reach for many of us.
Fortunately, there are options available for seniors to save money on quality dental care so they can receive the best possible care despite working with a tight budget.
While this may seem like common sense, dental appointments tend to show up low on most people’s priority list when they’re considering how to spend a limited amount of money. However, if we give dental care its proper priority, it becomes clear that regularly setting aside a small amount to cover our routine cleaning and exam should be a minimum requirement as we’re managing our annual budget.
Once you’ve established the cost of services in your area, you should be able to divide that figure by six to determine the minimum amount you’ll need to put aside each month.
Low-cost and no-cost community clinics
Most communities have programs set up to provide various healthcare services at little or no cost for members of the community who meet certain requirements. Low income is often a requirement, and age can be a factor as well.
Contact your local Health and Human Resources (HHR) office to inquire about what’s available in your local community.
Dental discount plans
Another option that many seniors overlook is dental discount plans. These programs offer significant discounts off the normal cost of many dental services in exchange for a very affordable monthly membership fee. Unlike insurance, discount plans don’t require copays or other fees, and there’s no limitation on how many times you can use the plan or how much you can save.
For example, the Dental Solutions program offers 20-50 percent off retail costs for general and specialized dental care at participating providers for less than $10 per month for the entire household. Even if you only use the plan for two cleanings per year, it more than pays for itself, especially if your household includes two or more people.
With so many oral health challenges facing older Americans, it’s encouraging to know that opportunities exist for seniors to save on dental appointments and afford quality care. If you’re a senior yourself, or are caring for a loved one facing these struggles, look into one or more of the options described above.