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February 24, 2024

Stand with older adults to improve access to dental care

Grandpa wants to eat an apple.

This is a simple act. Yet, one in five people over the age of 65 living in the U.S. have lost all their teeth according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). To make matters worse, Medicare—the main health insurance for people over 65—does not include dental coverage at all.  

Fortunately, Congress is working on significant legislation that could improve the lives of millions of Americans by helping seniors get access to affordable dental services. If approved, the Medicare Dental Benefit Acts of 2021, H.R.502 and S.97, would add dental and oral health services to Medicare, including routine diagnostic and preventive services, basic and major dental services, emergency care, and dentures.

Without Medicare dental coverage, our seniors will continue to struggle with everyday activities such as speaking, eating nutritiously, living without pain, and being self-confident—all of which can lead to social isolation. In a local survey conducted by Area Agency on Aging, seniors identified dental care as a top need.

Gene, a local senior in his mid-60’s, can relate. He suffered from periodontal [gum] disease for most of his life, which led to the loss of many teeth. “Missing a bunch of front teeth made it almost impossible for me to go out and act confidently in the world,” he commented. Before getting replacement dentures at Dientes Community Dental Care, Gene would spend up to an hour every morning gluing his old dentures so they would stay together.

Retired nurse Gwynne is in her 70s and explained, “I live on social security and can barely afford my rent—let alone food, transportation, and medical bills. Without dental care, not only am I in pain, but I feel helpless and ashamed.”

Throughout the state, the high cost of dental care is the number-one obstacle to obtaining dental services. Half of Medicare beneficiaries have annual incomes below $23,000. For our seniors living on a fixed income or struggling with poverty, routine dental care often takes a backseat to needs like food and shelter. 

Ignoring or deferring oral healthcare has serious repercussions. When regular oral healthcare is deferred, dental conditions that are easily preventable or treatable, worsen—leading to pain, infection, and tooth loss. Furthermore, lack of access to oral healthcare impacts overall health. Bacteria from oral infections can travel and contribute to serious conditions such as heart disease, stroke, and diabetes.

Lack of access to dental care also strains our emergency healthcare facilities and resources. Patients who end up in the emergency room with a dental abscess could have easily avoided this expensive, and often painful, experience with regular access to dental care. 

Prevention is far less costly than treatment. However, even more important than the implications beyond a dollar amount is the priceless effect on quality of life that regular access to oral healthcare provides—including the simple pleasure, and health benefits, of eating an apple.

Take action today by sharing your voice. Join Dientes and others across the United States to let your representative know that coverage for dental care must be added to Medicare. 

For more information or to share your thoughts go to: dientes.org/seniors

Let us stand together to support our seniors so they can eat, laugh, and smile with the dignity of a healthy smile. 

Since 1992 Dientes Community Dental Care has been providing high-quality, comprehensive, and affordable oral healthcare for the low-income Santa Cruz County community. Laura Marcus is the Dientes Chief Executive Officer and Janis Bolt is a Dientes Patient Board Member.


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