By 2021, senior citizens were estimated to represent 18.7 percent of the Canadian population, but the 2016 census showed that the population of Canadians over the age of 65 grew at a faster rate than expected. In fact, seniors now outnumber the number of children in Canada, with 5.9 million senior residents in total. Canada is known for its position as a healthcare leader throughout the world, but that doesn’t mean that the nation’s healthcare system is currently equipped to handle the growing demand for the services these seniors will need. And in some cases, seniors may be shying away from pursuing necessary oral health services.
Canadian oral health: an overview
According to the Canadian Dental Association, oral care across the country is improving. In the 1970s, only half of the entire population visited a dentist on an annual basis. Now, 75 percent of Canadians see their dentist every year, with 86 percent receiving an oral checkup every two years. Not surprisingly, this shift caused the percentages of those with tooth decay and missing teeth to decrease substantially over the next few decades.
But it’s not all good news. Although access to oral care has been recognized as a basic human right, sources point out that Canada actually has one of the lowest rates of publicly funded dental care worldwide. That’s because the majority of dental care is privately funded through employer-sponsored health insurance.
Approximately 32 percent of all Canadians have no dental insurance, while the percentage of Canadian seniors without dental insurance is 53 percent. And while many American seniors can find out more about their options through a health information exchange organization, some Canadian retirees have to go without the insurance coverage that could make preventative oral care more financially feasible.
A spotlight on seniors
Typically, senior citizens have a greater need for healthcare services, including dental care. But despite the fact that many seniors believe their income is more than enough to cover the costs of their dental care, Canadian senior citizens aren’t using these services as much as the general population does.
Anywhere from 60 to 90 percent of seniors living at home reported a need for dental services, yet only 26 percent said they visited a dentist within a two year span; approximately 12 to 16 percent of seniors said they hadn’t seen a dentist in the last five years. Oral care in senior housing isn’t much better, as only nine to 25 percent of those seniors see a dentist on a yearly basis and 30 to 78 percent said they hadn’t visited their dentist in five years or more.
Not surprisingly, a recent Canadian Health Measures Survey involving 5,600 senior participants found that nearly everyone between the ages of 60 and 79 had at least one decayed, missing, or filled tooth. And although survey participants claimed to brush and floss on a regular basis, 11 percent had untreated root cavities and 31 percent had at least one periodontal pocket (a sign of untreated gum disease).
According to that survey, 13 percent of the oldest participants avoided dentists due to costs, and 16 percent declined treatments for the same reason. Approximately seven percent reported experiencing persistent pain, with denture stomatitis (inflammation beneath the dentures) was observed in 20 percent of these seniors. It’s possible that many of the participants involved could have benefitted from pursuing treatment at a denture clinic in Calgary or elsewhere in Canada, but financial fears may have held them back.
Cost is not the only barrier to proper dental care for seniors, however. Many seniors simply feel they don’t have a need for these services, while others are unable to keep up with necessary health care treatments due to cognitive decline, transportation requirements, or other anxieties. As a result, sources predict that Canadian dental visits are not likely to keep pace with the growing population chiefly due to the fact that older residents use fewer services.
Although Canadian general healthcare is overwhelmingly available to those in need of it, regardless of their ability to pay, the Canadian oral healthcare system is not nearly as equitable. Researchers have found that those with no insurance and lower income brackets (demographics that often include seniors) are less likely to pursue dental services throughout the country.
Unfortunately, that means that many seniors see a dentist only in emergency situations, rather than prioritizing the preventative care that could prevent such incidents from occurring in the first place.
In the end, that means Canadian seniors may be no better off than their American contemporaries when it comes to the state of their mouths—and their overall health, as a consequence. Researchers and other industry leaders continue to make recommendations in the hopes of making dental care more accessible to Canada’s most vulnerable populations, but whether those recommendations will be adopted remains to be seen.