Dental reforms to look after older people unable to access care needed, advocates say

Anke Neustadt

Better oral health outcomes in our elderly population is being touted as a major priority for advocates as the federal election campaign begins.

While an often overlooked health issue, experts say poor oral health is associated with and can contribute to cardiovascular disease, strokes, diabetes and cancers.

The Australian Dental Association (ADA) says about one in four older Australians have untreated tooth decay, and more than half have gum disease.

About 20 per cent of aged Australians have lost all their adult teeth and instead rely on dentures.

Meanwhile, one in eight Australians over 15 years old delayed or outright did not see a dental professional once during 2020 and 2021 due to COVID-19 according to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare.

A person receiving dental treatment.
The average wait time for public dental services is 12 months.(ABC Mid North Coast: Kerrin Thomas)

Council on the Ageing president Ian Yates said poor dental hygiene could lead to further social isolation and mental health issues.

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

Ian Yates wearing 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 came to fruition.

“There is public dental care, but they really only deal with emergency situations, 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 compounding effect.

“It can have obvious implications for people’s nutrition, and social isolation, which are already issues for the ageing population.”

Pain often goes unchecked

The Australian Dental Association are backing the calls for dental reforms.

ADA Victorian branch chief executive Matt Hopcraft said the pain associated with poor oral health often went unchecked in older residents.

“Wellbeing is really tied up in oral health,” Dr Hopcraft said.

“We often don’t recognise oral health problems in older people, and particularly when we get into that nursing home situation.

“Often pain is masked by medications they are taking for other problems so we see a lot of neglect that happens in that aged-care setting.”

A set of false teeth.
Dr Hopcraft says oral problems aren’t often recognised in older people.(Flickr: Stefan Z)

Dr Hopcraft said the aged care royal commission highlighted the “significant” issue of poor oral health for the elderly.

“One of the key recommendations that royal commission made was to establish a seniors benefits program to ensure that older Australians had access to dental care when they needed it,” he said.

In 2019, the Labor party made an election commitment to give lower income, older Australians access to $1,000 worth of free dental health 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’s health and ageing spokesman Mark Butler said in the statement the party was “committed to the long-term goal of expanding Medicare including to dental health services”.

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

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

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

The average wait 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 aged population in the 2022 election.

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