By Megan Schmidt
Imagine reacting to a funny joke, meeting someone new, or posing for a photo – all while trying to hide your less-than-perfect smile.
That’s the reality Metro West Housing Solutions (MWHS) resident John Vasu found himself in.
Like many, Vasu developed a fear of the dentistry of his childhood that followed him into adulthood. Avoidance of the dentist’s office led to significant oral health issues in his later years. By the time he turned 65, he had lost most of his teeth and was suffering from a painful infection in his gums that made it difficult to eat.
Vasu, a MWHS Maplewood resident since March 2017, got to know the Metro West Housing Solutions (MWHS) resident services team and began to open up about the oral health issues he was living with.
MWHS helps connect people to programs
Kristi Walsh, the Maplewood property resident services coordinator, knew about the dental grants administered by the Colorado Gerontological Society (CGS) for low-income seniors. Together, Walsh and Vasu gathered the information needed to submit the grant application.
Once Vasu’s grant was approved, CGS moved quickly to get Vasu the dental care he needed—which included fitting him with dentures.
“John came into the office right way to show us his new smile. He looked GREAT! I could see right away that his confidence was elevated and he was feeling better,” Walsh said.
Bernie Schmeits, the grant program manager for CGS, said the organization has awarded dental grants to around 200 seniors this past year and that there are currently 143 people on the waiting list. Schmeits said the need for senior dental assistance is increasing in Colorado.
“We’re seeing more people come into the system for the first time and people who haven’t seen a dentist in many years because they haven’t been able to afford it,” Schmeits said. “For most people, their rent, their food, or medication comes first. By the time they see a dentist, the work they need might be extensive and expensive.”
Schmeits said that cost, fear, a lack of transportation and not having an established relationship with a dentist all contribute to why a senior might forgo dental care. Removing barriers to dental care is so important because it can literally be a matter of life and death.
“Seniors need to keep eating and keep infections out of the body because it can turn into sepsis fairly quickly,” Schmeits said. “When you’re not eating right, you have no strength; your immunity goes down.”
‘It’s like night and day’
Vasu said the dental care he received didn’t just change his appearance—it has had a transformative effect on his quality of life. His oral pain is going away, he feels healthier overall and the whites of his eyes look brighter, he said. Soon, he’ll be able to enjoy a wider range of food once he fully heals from the dental work he received. He’s particularly looking forward to noshing on a slice of pizza.
“I’ve been seeing all the food commercials, and it’s just killing me,” he said, laughing.
But most of all, Vasu says that he’s enjoying the boost of confidence that came with his new smile. His friends and family have been showering him with compliments.
“I never realized how bad I looked … it’s like night and day,” he said.
He urges seniors in similar situations to look into grants and other community resources that can remove financial barriers to dental work.
“Do it—for your health, because that’s what’s important,” he said.
Indeed, Schmeits said, a person’s oral health is closely connected their overall well-being.
“It’s a happier and healthier life when you can eat right, smile without feeling embarrassed, live without pain. It can change your whole life,” said Schmeits.
The dental divide in America
Many Americans—particularly low-income individuals—find it difficult to obtain adequate dental care. Studies by the American Dental Association attribute cost as the most significant barrier to accessing dental care, said Walsh.
For seniors, the loss of dental coverage in retirement years often means paying for routine care and procedures out-of-pocket. Many make the tough decision to go without. A recent study found that less than half of Medicare beneficiaries visited the dentist in the course of a year. That number dropped to 27 percent at lower income levels.
Medicaid has long provided dental coverage for children of low-income families. In recent years, Colorado’s Medicaid program was expanded to serve low-income adults who traditionally didn’t receive dental benefits. But even with dental coverage through Medicaid, another barrier can get in the way: finding a dentist that accepts Medicaid. Currently, only about 20 percent of dentists in Colorado will treat Medicaid patients.
Going without dental care can often backfire. Although daily oral hygiene can go a long way toward preventing many issues, there’s no substitute for the preventive care and screening provided by a dentist.
Walsh says that untreated oral health conditions can cause disfiguring tooth loss and decay that can limit an individual’s employment opportunities and lower their self-esteem. Growing evidence suggests that gum diseases and infections can exasperate existing medical conditions, create new health problems and even lead to death.
Good oral health habits start early
February is National Children’s Dental Health month. MWHS provides free floss, toothpaste and toothbrushes at the properties every year.
“It’s just one small way that MWHS Resident Services helps to bridge the gap,” Walsh said.
Megan Schmidt is a staff writer at Metro West Housing Solutions.