The Gods Send Nuts To Those Who Have No Teeth

Forget arthritis, bursitis, acid reflux, and high blood pressure, they will not be the undoing of  “people of a certain age.” Those conditions are covered by health insurance.

But, if you need a root canal, braces, fillings or a whole host of  other periodontal  treatments–think  gum scraping, pocket reduction surgery, bone grafts and guided tissue regeneration –there’s a good chance it’s going to break the bank. Even for those who have  “Dental Insurance” the cost of dental care is astronomical.

Teeth are a big issue for those of us at of a certain age.

Last summer while hiking in Colorado, one of my teeth started to throb. I assumed it was brought on by the change in altitude – when I’m in Colorado I blame everything on the change in altitude. With some maximum strength Orajel and maximum strength Aleve, it seemed to hold the pain at bay, until it didn’t. On the day of my flight back to Minneapolis, I was sporting a swollen lip and looking at my watch like I haven’t done since I was in labor.

When I finally made it to the dentist, my face was so distorted from the swelling that I looked like a space creature from a sci-fi flick. The tooth was abscessed. Within several hours, the pain was gone and a treatment plan created  for not just the abscessed tooth, but about 10 other teeth the dentist said needed immediate attention.

The total bill: Thousands.

I’m not alone.Dental care is a big deal when you get older.  Ten years ago, when I was freelancing for  the Chicago Tribune, I wrote an article about senior citizens who were opting to wear braces. As part of the research, I remember one of the dentists telling  me that when you hit your 60’s your teeth start moving and become crooked. American Baby Boomers don’t like crooked teeth. It makes us feel British.

That particular article featured 87- year -old Lenore Widen, who had recently finished wearing braces. At the time, Widen was legally blind, and she said that losing both her sight and her smile was simply too much to take.


“About three years ago one tooth started sticking straight out,” she said. Then more teeth began to move, and within a year, she said, she felt like a freak.

Widen said she became so self-conscious that she stopped smiling and avoided talking to people in crowds.

The first two orthodontists said they could treat her, but they would need to pull a tooth.

Lippitz suggested Invisalign instead. She tried it and said no one knew she was wearing braces. Ten months later, her treatment was completed. She now wears a retainer every night to prevent her teeth from moving again.

Handelman was not surprised that Widen was reluctant to have a tooth pulled. He said that’s something he hears a lot from his older patients.

“They see it as losing a part of their body,” he said.


In 1964, I was on a Greyhound bus from Clearwater, Florida to Marion, Virginia. Somewhere in South Carolina a young woman sat next to me and started talking about her new teeth. She must have been in her early twenties and she had just had all her teeth pulled and dentures made. She was thrilled. The 13- year- old me was horrified. I knew, even then, that one of my life goals was to keep my teeth.

At 14, when my dentist said I needed to floss every day to avoid gum disease, I took that on with  OCD vigor.  Imagines of toothless old people and bad fitting dentures forced me into a lifetime of flossing compliance.

Dental care has been a huge topic of conversation over at Ronni Bennett’s Time Goes By blog .In September, she shared the challenges she’s faced with dentures and gum infections– not just the physical pain, but the  enormous financial burden unhealthy teeth create.


If I don’t have this work done, the dentist and perio guy both told me, infections will continue to erupt probably more frequently and I will lose some (or all) of my remaining teeth.

This is not a surprise to me. I’ve heard it before but have neglected my mouth for several years because the last time I got an estimate for the needed work, the cost was about two-thirds of my annual income.

It’s money I don’t have lying around and my income obviously is not enough to pay as I go meaning, also, that there is no hope of saving enough in even five years and maybe not ten – obviously not a useful time frame in regard to teeth and infections


Over the past couple of months, I have one friend who had dental implants, another who refuses to eat nuts ever again  because she broke a tooth and needed a crown after enjoying a bag of nuts, and a  friend who almost missed her 50th high school reunion because she swallowed her bridge and refused to attend without all her teeth.

The friend, who swallowed her bridge, told me the story while we were lunching, and she had me laughing so hard that I don’t think I have all the details. The upshot was that she  frantically tried to find someone who would create a new bridge in 24 hours so she could make it to the reunion. While she considered it an emergency, it didn’t qualify as an emergency to the dentists she was dealing with.

These are Delia by Anyi Lu. When you have days that the thought of wearing heels makes your teeth ache, these are the perfect shoes to brighten your smile.

These are Delia by Anyi Lu. When you have days that the thought of wearing heels makes your teeth ache, these are the perfect shoes to brighten your smile.

She finally got one made in time for her to get to Ohio about an hour before the party began.

The upshot, the bridge is in a part of her mouth that you don’t see, and she could have gone with the missing teeth and no one would have been the wiser. But, she explained she couldn’t. Knowing that she had missing teeth would have put her in the wrong frame of mind for her 50th reunion.

It’s not usual for my good friend Google and me to miscommunicate. Usually, when I’m searching for something, Google is right there with plenty of options.  But on this subject, Google acts as if she doesn’t speak the same language.  When I say, “Where is the outrage over the lack of dental insurance for older adults,” I get suggestions on where to buy dental insurance. I must be using the the wrong keywords.  I don’t see any ranting. Instead, I found ToothWisdom – a portal that lists available resources for people of a certain age.

Why aren’t people ranting about this issue? It’s a really good issue to rant about. It’s ridiculous the amount of money people have to pay to take care of their teeth.

The dentist bill can feel like  a kick in the teeth, it makes you want to bare your teeth, you are able to pay the bill by the skin of your  teeth. It’s something we should fight tooth and nail to change, people would give their eyeteeth for a healthy mouth, but getting anyone to change insurance coverage for this would be like  pulling teeth, still this is an issue that you can sink your teeth into.


But when she tried to sort her mother’s things, she could find nothing she wanted to keep. [..] Her demure sweater sets and pencil skirts, the gloves and hat-boxed hats;relics of a corseted existence that Marilyn had always pitied.  Her mother had loved her doll collection, but their faces were blank as chalk, white china masks under horsehair wigs.  Little strangers with cold stares.  Marilyn leafed through photo alums of a picture of herself with her mother and couldn’t find one. Only Marilyn in kindergarten pigtails; Marilyn in third grade with a missing front tooth.

Everything I Never Told You, Celeste Ng


  • Reply January 20, 2015

    Judy Rothschadl

    Elana, thank you for writing about this important topic. The lack of affordable dental care affects everyone and especially those on limited incomes. Yet I see no glimmer of hope that it will be resolved any time soon. My mouth is filled with crowns, fillings and missing teeth. The last time I went to the dentist I left feeling hopeless. Several teeth will need root canals in the not-too-distant future. Others are need crowns. But none of this is covered by my insurance. Even if I sold all my earthly belongings, I still wouldn’t have enough money to cover it. My brother is in a similar situation. He ended up having most of his teeth pulled because they were bothering him but he had no money to fix them. Many people think dental care is largely an issue of vanity. Nothing is further from the truth. What happens to our teeth can literally affect every part of our body. We need to tell our elected officials that dental care is a crucial part of our overall health and needs to be part of any insurance plan. We may be a country with abundant food resources, but it doesn’t do us any good without teeth to eat it.

  • Reply January 20, 2015


    Thank you for sharing, Judy. In my research, I did find some sites that offer reduced fee dental services. Have you checked any of those out? What is your opinion? In my research I found that many people wrote that they go to Mexico or other for dental care – even with the travel costs, it seems to be 75% less than what we have to pay. I also found this website: They say Costa Rica is a good alternative and the cost is 80% less than here!

    Just as I was posting this yesterday a friend called who has to have signficant dental work done. I am so baffled that peole aren’t making this an issue and I’d think dentists would want this to be an issue as well.
    We obviously need their services, the cost is prohibitive. If there was insurance to cover these procedures, dentists would be booked back to back. I just don’t get it. I guess I need to talk to some dentists to understand the issue more fully.

  • Reply January 20, 2015

    Judy Rothschadl

    I appreciate your feedback, Elana. I’ll check out the references you mentioned. My understanding is that insurers don’t like covering these big-figure procedures because they are so expensive and because it’s almost a given that most people will make a claim. For example, with flood insurance the insurance company may sell 100 policies but they’ve found that typically only 10 percent will file a claim. They make their money on the 90 percent who never do. With dental insurance, if they sell 100 policies with crown coverage they know that (just for explanation purposes) 90 percent probably will make a claim. So they don’t make any money. I’ve only found good coverage when it’s included as a job benefit. Again, thanks for bringing up this issue! Love your columns! I read them every week.

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