Oral health disparity affects all age groups, but is particularly difficult for the elderly. The complications of frail and failing teeth are compounded by the inability to access care. Insurance coverage for oral health is spotty, and Medicare, the public insurance available to the elderly, does not cover oral health.
Many of our aging community members, especially vulnerable and underserved populations, did not grow up with the benefit of water fluoridation, and 25 percent of adults aged 60 are missing many of their original teeth. Besides the painful side effects of oral health issues, missing or weak teeth affect nutrition, as older adults choose softer and potentially less nutritious foods. Twenty-three percent of the elderly population in the U.S. also suffer from gum disease, which is more common in disadvantaged populations.
In North Carolina, we are fortunate to have caring organizations working to collaborate on solutions to the problem of oral health disparity among the elderly. One of these organizations is Access Dental Care, a dentist office on wheels. Access Dental is a non-profit organization that travels to long-term care facilities to meet the needs of elderly patients.
Zulayka Santiago, director of the NC Oral Health Collaborative, reflected on the experience of a day with Access Dental:
“As a newcomer to the world of oral health, I had heard great things about the work of Access Dental Care. Given that words so often fall short in communicating the impact, it was important for me to witness their work in real time. I met them at Rex Health and Rehabilitation in Apex, a new site for them. It was a cloudy Monday morning, but what I witnessed that day would brighten most any day.
I met the van in the parking lot and helped them unload all of their equipment. In just a few minutes a full dental office set up in one of the dining areas! The ease and flow of process signaled to me that those three individuals had performed this routine many times. Providing dental care to individuals who are frail, elderly or who have intellectual or developmental disabilities is not easy (to state the obvious). My brief time with Access Dental Care definitely affirmed this fact. But more importantly, what the experience illuminated for me was that this type of work requires a certain strength of character and commitment to ensure that each patient receives the care they need with compassion and a lightness of heart.
Dr. Bill Milner (dentist), Betsy White (dental hygienist) and Rhonda Little (dental assistant) made a big impression on me that day. As we work to ensure access to optimal oral health for all North Carolinians, it is essential to celebrate the models that are working well and doing a good job of reaching the most vulnerable. I applaud and am inspired by the work of Access Dental Care. I am grateful to have such strong partners within the NC Oral Health Collaborative.”
The Foundation, through the expertise of the NC Oral Health Collaborative, acts as a convener for oral health disparity issues in the state. We work with partners like Access Dental Care to develop strategies and action plans to improve the oral health status of all North Carolinians. For more information on the Oral Health Collaborative, click here.