What Options Do Seniors Have for Gaining Access Dental Care?

Guest post by Heidi Coggan

Traditionally, health care delivery systems have been focused on treating acute, emergency situations rather than providing preventive care or treatment for chronic problems. In the United States, dentistry and medicine have been traditionally separate fields. However, growing evidence suggests there is a strong link between your oral health and your overall “whole-body” health. As such, the barrier that has existed between medicine and dentistry is beginning to dissolve.

For example, there have been an increasing number of studies linking periodontal disease to other systemic diseases. These include cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and respiratory disease – mainly pneumonia, Alzheimer’s disease, and dementia.

As this understanding increases, it’s become increasingly obvious that oral health care should be an essential part of every adult’s general health and maintaining their quality of life. As such, it’s vital that that basic oral health services be considered part of a patient’s primary care. The question is how do we achieve this with an aging population?

Unmet dental needs among the elderly has been a known issue for years. As the baby boomer generation moves into retirement, the need for these services is expected to increase dramatically. One of the solutions to this crisis has been the emergence of independent dental hygiene practices and collaborations with local dentists. This has allowed the dental hygiene community to reach out to these vulnerable populations.

These services vary depending on each state’s regulation, however. For example, California allows Registered Dental Hygienists in Alternative Practice, which are mid-level practitioners that may travel to alternative settings such as dental health shortage areas, nursing homes, and private homes.

Alaska, on the other hand, is solving their access to care issues with another service called Alaskan Dental Health Aide. This service recruits students from native Alaskan communities, then trains and returns them to those underserved populations. There they can provide a variety of services such as local anesthesia and tooth extraction; however, the service is only available in rural villages.

Other resources are available in each state. To learn more, contact your local dental hygiene society or association. Other health organizations may also be of help, including your local dental association and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

You can also use Oral Health America’s www.toothwisdom.org Find Care tool to see what options are available near you.