The desire for a winning smile draws a lot of people to the dentist but when it comes to vital dental care, many older Australians are unfortunately falling through the gaps.
Dentistry has remained primarily private and is not covered by Medicare and the limited amount of publicly funded dental care has long waitlists for patients. The current rising cost of living has only exacerbated the issue and many seniors, especially pensioners, are increasingly struggling to afford expensive dentist bills.
Ahead of the Senate Select Committee on Provision of and Access to Dental Services in Australia, COTA (formerly known as the Council on the Ageing) has called for a Seniors Dental Benefit Scheme to be introduced. The scheme would function similarly to the existing Children’s Dental Benefits Scheme and ensure that senior citizens can access a full range of publicly funded dental health care services with minimal out-of-pocket costs.
Labor and Greens politicians have included similar policies as a part of their election platforms. The preceding Coalition government also reviewed the issue during the Royal Commission into Aged Care Safety and Quality and found that dental health care access was an issue for older Australians.
The current Labor government has affirmed that they are committed to improving access to dentistry services for older Australians. However, they have not set a timeframe for implementing any policy changes. COTA Australia Acting Chief Executive Officer, Corey Irlam, said in a recent media statement that political inaction on the issue is putting the health of older Australians at risk.
“Both the ALP and the Greens took a Seniors Dental policy to the 2019 election, and the Coalition Government at the time actively reviewed the issue in responding to the Aged Care Royal Commission, but we’re still yet to see any meaningful action,” Irlam said.
“Australians, particularly older Australians, need to see political leadership on this important issue.”
Poor dental health has been linked to other health conditions, Irlam explaining that “as we get older, the stakes get higher”.
“The risks of poor oral health in young people can be substantial, but as we age the risks increase significantly,” Irlam said.
“Evidence shows that poor dental health does not simply increase embarrassment and social isolation, there is also a relationship with the increased risk of diabetes, heart disease and chronic malnutrition in older people.”
Irlam is currently set to address the Senate Select Committee into Provision of and Access to Dental Services in Australia on the issue.
The importance of oral health and its impact on overall health and well-being cannot be understated and given research that highlights the link between gum disease and chronic health conditions such as Alzheimer’s, diabetes, and heart disease, Australians are encouraged to prioritise their dental health.
When it comes to maintaining good oral health in your later years, Advisory Services Manager, Engagement & Advocacy Executive, Dr Sarah Raphael from the Australian Dental Association NSW Branch suggests keeping things simple at the bathroom sink.
“It’s the good old basic things – performing oral hygiene twice daily – toothbrushing with fluoride toothpaste, cleaning dentures and leaving them out at night, eating a diet low in added sugar, drinking tap water as the main drink and staying well hydrated (have a water bottle available at all times),” Raphael said.
Raphael also stresses the importance of prevention over cure and suggests regular dentist visits to stay ahead of possible problems.
“Ensuring that they have regular preventive dental visits in their senior years is the best way to avoid these consequences,” she said.