Dental reforms to care for older people who don’t have access to needed care, advocates say:

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Better oral health outcomes in our elderly population are being touted as a top priority for attorneys as the federal election campaign begins.

While a health problem is often overlooked, 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 about one in four older Australians has untreated tooth decay and more than half have gum disease.

About 20 percent of elderly Australians have lost all their adult teeth and rely on dentures instead.

Meanwhile, according to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, one in eight Australians over the age of 15 will be delayed or not seen a dentist due to COVID-19 in 2020 and 2021.

The average waiting time for public dental services is 12 months.ABC Mid North Coast: Kerrin Thomas

Council on the Aging chair Ian Yates said poor oral hygiene can lead to further social isolation and mental health problems.

“A lot of older people struggle because we don’t have the equivalent of Medicare in our dental services,” said Mr. Yates.

Ian Yates wears a suit
Ian Yates says many people cannot afford to pay for dental work.ABC News: Ross Nerdal

He said the Whitlam government’s plan to include dentistry in Medicare never materialized.

“There is public dental care, but they only deal with emergencies, in terms of the adult population … and they have long waiting lists,” Mr Yates said.

“People with oral and dental health problems… that has a reinforcing effect.

“It could have clear implications for people’s diets and social isolation, which are already a problem for the aging population.”

Pain often goes uncontrollably

The Australian Dental Association supports calls for dental reform.

Matt Hopcraft, head of the ADA’s Victorian branch, said the pain associated with poor oral health in older residents often went uncontrolled.

“Well-being is really connected to oral health,” said Dr. hopcraft.

“We often don’t recognize oral health problems in older people, especially when we end up in that nursing home situation.

“Often, pain is masked by drugs they’re taking for other problems, so we’re seeing a lot of neglect in that aged care.”

A set of false teeth.
dr. Hopcraft says oral problems aren’t often recognized in older people.Flickr: Stefan Z

dr. Hopcraft said the royal commission on aged care highlighted the “important” issue of poor oral health for the elderly.

“One of the key recommendations made by the Royal Commission was to set up a senior benefits program to ensure older Australians had access to dental care when they needed it,” he said.

In 2019, the Labor Party made an election pledge to give older lower-income Australians access to $1,000 in free dental care every two years.

A man with slicked back brown hair, wearing a suit and tie with a stern look on his face
Mark Butler says Labor wants to expand Medicare.ABC News: Nicholas Haggarty

Labor health and aging spokesman Mark Butler said in the statement that the party is “committed to the long-term goal of expanding Medicare, including dental health services.”

Mr Butler did not say whether the party would re-commit to the 2019 senior dental program.

A spokesman for Health and Aging Minister Greg Hunt said the government understood the importance of oral health and the barriers to accessing affordable dental care.

An additional year of funding for public dental services for adults was announced in the 2022-23 budget.

The average waiting time for public dental services is 12 months.

The minister did not respond to a question about whether the coalition would commit to a specific dental plan for the elderly population in the 2022 elections.

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