Older People Suffer Due to Costly Oral Care — Here’s How to Avoid That Fate

Dental patient
Photo by Kulniz / Shutterstock.com

Never mind the high cost of medical care, or the many older folks who haven’t planned for the cost of long-term care they’ll likely need in retirement. Many older Americans are struggling to afford basic dental care.

It’s costing them in missed work, pain and other health problems, according to recent results from the University of Michigan National Poll on Healthy Aging.

There are many ways to reduce the cost of dental care, however — even if you don’t have insurance. In fact, dental insurance is arguably unnecessary in many cases.

Older Americans’ poor oral health

The University of Michigan poll of adults age 50 to 64 divides them into three groups based on the oral health care they seek:

  • 60 percent are considered prevention-focused, meaning they get regular dental cleanings and problem care as needed.
  • 17 percent have inconsistent prevention, meaning they get occasional dental cleanings and problem care as needed.
  • 23 percent were problem-focused, meaning they get dental care only for serious problems. Of these folks, 34 percent said their last preventive dental visit was more than a decade ago.

Just in the past two years, 27 percent of survey respondents have needed dental care but delayed it or did not get it. They include folks with and without dental insurance.

While postponing care might save money in the short term, many Americans are paying for it in other ways. Among the respondents, the poll found:

  • 38 percent have dental problems that caused pain, difficulty eating, missed work or other health problems within the past two years.
  • 34 percent are embarrassed about the condition of their teeth.

Most respondents — 79 percent — agreed it’s “definitely true” that regular dental care is important to prevent dental problems at their age. But for folks with unmet dental needs, cost is a major obstacle, cited by 69 percent of those folks.

Do you really need dental insurance?

The University of Michigan notes that whether an older person has dental insurance appears linked to the degree of dental care the person gets. While only 28 percent of all respondents said they lack dental coverage, a much higher share of problem-focused respondents — 56 percent — said they lack coverage.

Whatever your case may be, it’s important to understand that dental insurance is optional. In other words, you need to weigh whether it makes financial sense for you to buy coverage, particularly if it isn’t available to you through an employer.

We explain in “14 Insurance Products That Are a Waste of Money” that unless you have dental insurance through work, a plan can cost at least $50 a month for benefits that top out at as little as $1,000 a year. The article continues:

“Don’t buy it thinking you’ll collect thousands of dollars’ worth of implants or other complex treatments. Your policy might just pay 50 percent for oral surgery and restorative care. It may not cover cosmetic dentistry at all. The problem is the yearly cap on payouts. Dental plans haven’t raised these maximum payouts over the years, even though the premiums keep growing.”

For more help weighing this decision, check out “Is Dental Insurance Worth the Cost?

Other ways to save on dental care

Many folks don’t realize just how many avenues there are for reduced-price or even free dental care.

These options — which we detail in that article as well as “How to Have Healthy Teeth and Avoid Crazy Dental Fees” — include:

  • Discount dental plans
  • Charitable clinics
  • Dental schools
  • Dental hygiene schools
  • Medicaid
  • Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP)
  • Clinical trials
  • Medical travel

What’s your take on this news — can you relate, or do you have tips for other people struggling with dental care costs? Share below or on our Facebook page.

Disclosure: The information you read here is always objective. However, we sometimes receive compensation when you click links within our stories.

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