Skip to content
Join our Newsletter

Comment: Seniors deserve a chance to keep their teeth

Faced with the brutal reality of dental care in the free market, I have been denied access to treatment due to factors such as economic status, disability, source of income, and discrimination by dentists.
Poverty undermines the state of many seniors’ oral health, writes Doreen Marion Gee. THE CANADIAN PRESS

A commentary by an activist and advocate for seniors’ rights.

The holiday spirit of joy and celebration lasted well into the new year as 2024 brought me the gift of better eyesight. Surgery to remove a cataract in January has transformed my world.

For the first time in 60 years, I don’t need glasses to see at a distance. I benefited from the outstanding high-tech expertise of the eye surgeon and caring respectful treatment at Royal Jubilee Hospital.

The cherry on the cake was full coverage by the B.C. ­Medical Services Plan, including a new lens in my eye to correct my eyesight.

This rewarding experience revealed what constitutes proper accessible medical care. It also showed, in disturbing contrast, exactly how the substandard treatment of another health problem, my deteriorating teeth, is the absolute antithesis of this positive life event.

Out of sheer desperation, I shared my story on television in December, showing viewers a pile of broken teeth and letters from the provincial government repeatedly denying me restorative treatment. The multiple factors responsible for this stark divide between the two treatment experiences are due to many circumstances beyond my control.

Poverty undermines the state of many seniors’ oral health. Subsisting on miserly Old Age Security benefits means reduced access to the nutritious food essential for strong teeth.

My only dental “plan,” a remnant of my time on provincial disability, covers next to nothing. Provincial MSP does not cover dental care, aside from emergency oral surgery.

Faced with the brutal reality of dental care in the free market, I have been denied access to treatment due to factors such as economic status, disability, source of income, and discrimination by dentists.

Decades of neglect of my dental needs by successive provincial governments have culminated in a state of poor oral health. My story also shows the need for government regulation of dentists to prevent them from refusing treatment to people based on their source of income.

Years ago, while on disability benefits, I was denied coverage for a crown. The restoration was finally approved after I appealed the decision and won.

However, I had to endure another four years of waiting as I was turned away by every dentist I visited in Victoria simply because I was on income assistance.

Eventually, I found a dentist to do the work, but his subsequent requests for restorations to preserve my other teeth were routinely rejected by the B.C. government, leading to a mouth full of broken and crumbling teeth.

The natural deterioration of aging teeth also puts seniors at a distinct disadvantage when they cannot access dental care.

In December 2023, the ­Canadian Association of Retired Persons (CARP) expressed ­concerns that “Aging teeth are at increased risk for gum disease, root decay often leading to tooth loss, and soft-tissue lesions.”

In addition, the oral health of my generation got off to a bad start. There were no warnings about white sugar back in the 1950s and no preventative dental care programs for children.

Harvard Health Publishing (2010) states “adults who grew up before the advent of fluoride products and dental sealants often have fillings from childhood and adolescence that eventually break down.”

The “devil is in the details” of the new federal “Canadian Dental Care (Insurance) Plan.”

What is heralded as full dental coverage for seniors is, in reality, just a skeleton of basics, with no options to restore and preserve aging teeth.

Its failure to address the unique and important needs of elders speaks to systemic age discrimination.

Canadian seniors should not be penalized now for a lack of preventative dental care years ago. They deserve to have access to restorative work such as crowns and bridges, despite their income level, to keep their teeth.

Ottawa provides comprehensive dental coverage for the Canadian Armed Forces and full dental benefits for First Nations and Inuit, with a wide range of restorative treatments to preserve teeth. Crowns are included for both groups, plus bridgework for military staff and their ­families.

Surely our valuable senior ­citizens, who worked hard to build this country, deserve no less.

Dental care should be inclusive and accessible to anyone who needs it. B.C. seniors deserve a dental insurance program specific to them, jointly funded by the province and Ottawa, to address their unique needs and histories, with the goal of preserving their teeth.

>>> To comment on this article, write a letter to the editor: [email protected]