Our senior citizens’ dental health problems

Back in the day, a bride’s parents would pay for the bride to have her teeth out and dentures fitted before the marriage so the groom would not have the expense. I

Nowadays, dentists do their utmost to save teeth from extraction throughout our lives, often at huge cost.

Dental care for New Zealand’s elderly is becoming prohibitively expensive. Unlike Australia, where health insurance policies routinely include dental care, New Zealanders usually have little or no insurance.

The only assistance the state gives is a grant of $300 a year, means tested, for emergency dental work. This is available, through WINZ for community services card holders only.

A recent survey of 2000 New Zealanders showed 53% put off a visit to the dentist, 71% don’t visit a dentist annually because of the cost, 34% go to a dentist only when in pain, and 38% are unhappy with their teeth.

A growing trend, which is worrying some dentists and the New Zealand Dental Association, is tourism dentistry.

A spokesman for the association warned that New Zealand dentists were increasingly being asked to pick up the pieces after less than competent treatment has been performed overseas.

Roy Watson runs Absolutely Thailand - a business that offers to organise your travel, accommodation and dental treatment at a 'reliable certified clinic'. He has had some 400 clients since his business began five years ago. He said treatment costs about a third of that charged in New Zealand and people could often get their treatment and holiday at a cheaper price than treatment alone here.

Some dentists are worried about hepatitis, aids and other infections from inadequate clinics overseas.

I spoke to Vikki Nelson, a dentist from the practice I use, Keith Nelson and Associates. She confirmed my anecdotal evidence that many seniors are neglecting their dental needs. She agreed that practice costs were constantly rising. “It’s an expensive business to run,” she told me.

Vikki Nelson said people now had an expectation of living to 80 or 90, hopefully still with a mouth full of teeth. If those teeth are not looked after in their younger years, fillings will often not last five years, whereas a 20 year old can expect a filling to last 20 years.

“So people are now needing an extra 40 years of dental health care,” Vikki said.

Quick temporary fixes are too often the order of the day. Had her sister, Deanna, been talking to Vikki about me?

My previous dentist Sandy Imrie, from the Newmarket Dental Group, has now retired, but he used to say regularly to me “that tooth needs capping when your ship comes in,” to which I would answer, “just fill the bugger for now.”

It is high time for some Government assistance to our seniors for dental treatment. Fillings, gum disease, broken teeth: all are reducing the quality of life for many of our citizens. If they are in pain, and can’t afford to go to the dentist, further mouth trouble is surely ahead. At a certain point, people can’t chew any longer and their food choices become limited.

Their quality of life diminishes, and they feel like their lives have resulted in failure. Depression and loneliness is growing among our elderly in New Zealand.

Old people seem, eventually, to be able to get hip and knee replacements, but their teeth rot and fall out while no one comes to their assistance.

In my 80th year, I am one of those who seeks the minimum dental care I need. I know my teeth are suffering from this neglect, but the costs are becoming prohibitive.

I know, too, that those costs are not resulting in a proliferation of Ferraris and Lamborghinis in the garages of our dentists, who have to keep up to date with, and buy, the latest technology to patch up neglected mouths, all while patients grizzle about the cost. Dental students rack up the highest student loans of any professional.

One advantage dentists have is that they can keep patients mouths stuffed so they can’t bleat on!

Some young people are renting clothes, so they can look and feel different each time they go out. You can’t rent teeth, although we have heard old stories of families sharing dentures when they go out.

It would be fair, just and humane for the Government to pick up some of the dental costs of our elderly citizens. I don’t think the practice of sharing dentures will catch on again any time soon. (JOHN ELLIOTT)