Older adults shouldn’t have to lose their teeth

A dental hygienist cleans a 80-year-old Roseville resident’s teeth at her apartment.
A dental hygienist cleans a 80-year-old Roseville resident’s teeth at her apartment. Sacramento Bee file

They fought our wars, taught our children and built our roads. Yet many older Californians spend their golden years struggling to afford healthy food, a safe place to live or quality health care.

Fortunately, federal lawmakers have taken bipartisan action to help them meet these challenges.

Congress and the president just reauthorized the Older Americans Act, which provides nearly 12 million low-income seniors in California and across the country critical services, including nutrition, transportation and care-giving.

For the first time, the act also sets aside money to cover oral health screenings for seniors. This new provision is crucial, as older adults’ dental health can significantly impact their overall physical and mental well-being.

In California, the population of older adults is growing twice as fast as the general population. On average, more than 1,000 baby boomers turn 65 every day. Many of them simply cannot afford dental care.

Oral health has long been overlooked by our health care system, despite strong evidence that bad teeth and gums are linked to malnutrition, heart disease, breast cancer, cognitive decline, diabetes and stroke. Painful or absent teeth can also worsen social isolation and lead to depression.

These consequences are particularly acute for low-income seniors, who typically lack access to affordable oral care. That may force them to live in pain or lose their teeth.

Many of these problems stem from inadequate dental coverage for seniors.

Just three in 10 older Americans have private dental insurance. Fee-for-service Medicare, the largest health insurer for people 65 and older, doesn’t cover routine dental care. Dental services under Medicaid, the health program for low-income Americans, vary by state. Pressure on California’s state budget makes it difficult to provide meaningful and sustainable dental benefits through its Medi-Cal program.

By funding oral health screening for seniors, the Older Americans Act should help California begin to address the problem.

But more support and innovative, coordinated approaches are needed. The University of the Pacific’s dental school, for instance, recently launched a teledentistry initiative that sends dental hygienists into nursing homes and other underserved communities.

We’ve seen this first hand in downtown San Diego, where the Gary and Mary West Foundation will open a community dental clinic inside a popular senior center later this year. The goal is to join high-quality, affordable oral care with comprehensive health care and essential social services, including nutritious meals and mental health services.

The innovative clinic, which will have two dentists and four chairs, will also yield valuable research into the impact of providing comprehensive clinical, dental and social services for seniors. This research could help policymakers develop new models of delivering and paying for senior dental care.

The ultimate goal isn’t just to treat teeth – it’s to treat people’s health and well-being so that they can age with dignity and independence. That’s what all Americans deserve when they reach their golden years.

Shelley Lyford is president and CEO of the Gary and Mary West Foundation. She can be contacted at