Dental reforms to care for older people unable to access care are needed, advocates say
Better oral health outcomes in our older population are being touted as a top priority for advocates as the federal election campaign begins.
- Supporters call for a specific dental program for the elderly to address ‘significant’ oral issues
- Around one in four older Australians have untreated tooth decay
- Expert says pain associated with poor oral health often goes unchecked
Although an often overlooked health condition, experts say poor oral health is associated with and can contribute to cardiovascular disease, stroke, diabetes and cancers.
The Australian Dental Association (ADA) says that around one in four older Australians suffer from untreated tooth decay and more than half suffer from gum disease.
About 20% of older Australians have lost all their adult teeth and rely on dentures instead.
Meanwhile, one in eight Australians over the age of 15 delayed or outright did not see a dental professional once in 2020 and 2021 due to COVID-19 according to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare -be.
Council on Aging chairman Ian Yates said poor dental hygiene could lead to social isolation and additional mental health issues.
“A lot of seniors struggle because in our dental services we don’t have the equivalent of Medicare,” Yates said.
He said the Whitlam government’s plan to include dentistry in Medicare never materialized.
“There is public dental care, but they really only deal with emergencies, in terms of the adult population…and they have long waiting lists,” Yates said.
“People with oral health issues…it has a cumulative effect.
“This can have obvious implications for people’s nutrition and social isolation, which are already issues for the aging population.”
The pain is often uncontrolled
The Australian Dental Association supports calls for dental reforms.
ADA Victorian branch chief executive Matt Hopcraft said the pain associated with poor oral health often goes unchecked in older residents.
“Wellness is really tied to oral health,” Dr. Hopcraft said.
“We often don’t recognize oral health issues in older people, and especially when we get into that nursing home situation.
“A lot of times the pain is masked by the medications they’re taking for other issues, so we see a lot of neglect happening in this senior care setting.”
Dr Hopcraft said the Royal Commission on the Care of the Aged had highlighted the “significant” problem of poor oral health in older people.
“One of the main recommendations of the royal commission was to establish an elderly benefit program to ensure that older Australians have access to dental care when they need it,” he said.
In 2019, the Labor Party pledged in the election to give older, low-income Australians access to $1,000 of free dental care every two years.
Labor health and aging spokesman Mark Butler said in the statement that the party was “committed to the long-term goal of extending health insurance, including dental health services “.
Mr Butler did not say whether the party would recommit to the 2019 seniors dental program.
A spokesman for Health and Aging Minister Greg Hunt said the government understands the importance of oral health and the barriers to accessing affordable dental care.
An additional year of funding was announced in the 2022-2023 budget for public dental services for adults.
The average wait time for public dental services is 12 months.
The Minister did not respond to questions about whether the Coalition would commit to a specific dental plan for the elderly population in the 2022 election.
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