May is Older Americans Month, a perfect opportunity to consider the plight of many older Americans maintaining their oral health care.
In the United States, the majority of Americans age 65 or older are covered under Medicare for their healthcare needs. However, with very few exceptions, Medicare offers no coverage toward dental services, including basic professional cleanings and examinations. The high cost of treatment, combined with this lack of coverage, has led many older Americans to forego both preventive services and treatment of acute oral health issues that shouldn’t be ignored.
Why is it so important for older Americans to care for their oral health? What makes this increasingly challenging, beyond the cost? And what can be done to improve the situation for older citizens?
Why is it important for older Americans to care for their oral health?
"The majority of Americans age 65 or older are covered under Medicare for their healthcare needs. However, with very few exceptions, Medicare offers no coverage toward dental services
including basic professional cleanings and examinations."
Neglecting oral health not only leads to other serious health problems like infections and even malnutrition, it also eliminates a key opportunity for early diagnosis of serious conditions that often present orally before other symptoms become apparent.
That’s why it’s so important for everyone to maintain good oral health and see their dentist regularly. This is especially important as we get older because health concerns become more prevalent, more dangerous, and more challenging to treat as we age.
What are the main senior dental care obstacles?
Beyond the cost factor discussed above, caring for our oral health can become more challenging as we age due to natural factors that go along with getting older.
One factor involves the strength, stamina, and coordination needed to effectively brush and floss our teeth. Due to conditions like arthritis or other degenerative bone and muscle diseases, many seniors find it difficult to brush and floss their teeth effectively as often as they need to in order to maintain proper oral health. They may think they’re doing an adequate job, only to find cavities and periodontal disease becoming more and more common.
Using special tools like electric toothbrushes and handy flossing guides can make a big difference in seniors’ abilities. In some cases, however, the best option may be to have a caregiver take over the role of brushing and flossing to make sure it’s being done properly every day.
Another reason maintaining oral health becomes more challenging with age is the fact that dry mouth (also known as xerostomia) is a very common side effect of many prescription drugs. As seniors may require more medications for health issues, the chance of experiencing dry mouth increases. This condition can be dangerous to oral health because a lack of saliva reduces or eliminates one of the body’s key defensive mechanisms in the fight against bacteria that can cause tooth decay and gum disease.
Staying well hydrated throughout the day can counteract the effects of xerostomia, as can chewing sugarfree gum. Oral moisturizers may also be prescribed to help control the condition.
What can be done to improve the situation for older Americans concerned about their oral health?
Private dental insurance options exist to cover regular and advanced dental services for seniors, although they may be cost prohibitive to those who are on a fixed income or are managing a tight budget.
A dental discount card through a discount dental program is an alternative to dental insurance, which provides a significant discount off the retail cost of services while costing very little on a monthly or yearly basis.
Other options for seniors looking to safeguard their smiles include specialty tools like the ones described above to make oral self care easier, as well as taking advantage of community programs and other opportunities for free or low-cost dental care if and when it’s available.
It’s important to think about the issue of senior oral health beyond Older Americans Month. Make a commitment now to remain educated yourself or to help your grandparent, parent, or older friends understand and prioritize their oral health going forward.