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Dental clinic clicks with seniors

A new Federal Way facility opened its doors June 19 to seniors who find it increasingly harder to afford dental work.

Geriatric Dental Group, at 728 S. 320th St., specializes in treating seniors and those confined to a wheelchair.

The nonprofit dental clinic operated a site in Portland since 1974. In that time, residents as far away as Alaska and California made the drive to receive dental care there, said Pam Linder, Geriatric Dental Group of Portland director.

Because dental work is not covered by Medicare, many seniors are unable to afford routine dental checks to ensure their teeth are healthy. Unhealthy teeth can cause more than discomforts — they can lead to serious health conditions.

But now, seniors have a location in Western Washington they can visit to receive dental care at discounted prices.

For the most part, Geriatric Dental Group offers the same services any other dental facility does, such as cleanings, crowns, fillings, bridges, dentures, root canals, extractions and bleaching. But it only offers these services to people at least 55 years old or who are confined to a wheelchair.

Caring for seniors' dental needs requires patience and commitment. At times, seniors need to have the details of their dental work repeated to them, said Amy Linder, director of the Federal Way facility.

Dentists here are patient and take the time to make sure the work will not interfere with patients' medical needs, she said.

Health concerns

In Washington state, 16 percent of senior citizens have not seen a dentist in the past five years, according the Centers for National Disease Control's Behavioral Risk Factors Surveillance System data collected in 2001.

"Unfortunately, seniors have a multiplicity of needs, and I think that sometimes oral health and dental care gets neglected with all the other needs that they have," said Tara Lee, program manager at Washington Dental Services Foundation.

This lack of regular dental care can lead to several health concerns. Dentists treating seniors must be aware of their patients' medications. More than 400 over-the-counter and prescription medications cause dry mouth, which can lead to cavities, Lee said. Root carries, similar to cavities in the gums, are also common in seniors.

Many seniors have gum disease as well, which can lead to heart conditions and root decay, Lee said. Root decay can also result in malnutrition.

Poor oral health can increase risk for pneumonia and is associated with diabetic complications as well as an increased risk for heart attacks and strokes.

Despite these facts, a shift in thinking is occurring among older generations, Lee said. People are living longer and their desire to keep their own teeth instead of dentures is increasing.

Trip to the dentist

Patricia Davis, 83, of Freeland used to visit the facility in Portland when she needed false upper teeth and wanted to have her lower teeth checked, she said. The dentist at the Portland facility provided a bridge for Davis' lower teeth, but allowed her to keep four of her own lower teeth.

Except for one time, Davis has not seen a dentist since 1990. She is on a limited income and dental work is too expensive for her to afford on a regular basis, she said.

Davis is not alone in her search for affordable dental care.

The majority of seniors in Washington state do not have a way to pay for dental care. Dental work is not covered by Medicare and one must qualify, based on income, for Medicaid.

Medicaid can only be used for certain dental procedures and many dentists will not accept it as a payment for services, Lee said.

Davis receives $1,000 a month, but she is ineligible for Medicaid because her income exceeds its qualifications by $11 per month, she said. She is forced to pay for dental procedures herself.

"Seniors aren't working anywhere and unless you have a lot of money, you can't have your teeth fixed," Davis said. "They just rot in your mouth."

When Davis' upper dentures broke suddenly, she was forced to seek the help of a dentist in Oak Harbor. She was charged $85 to glue the false teeth back together, she said.

"They got you because they know you have to have your teeth," she said.

Good discount

Eileen Galer, 64, of Bellingham has visited the clinic in Portland for the past six years for fillings, crowns and cleanings, she said.

Like Davis, Galer does not have dental insurance. This is why she chooses to visit the Portland facility.

Geriatric Dental Group offers services discounted up to 40 percent, Amy Linder said. For example, the Federal Way clinic charges $58 for a cleaning, while neighboring clinics charge about $100, Linder said.

Galer and Davis said the biggest advantages to receiving care at Geriatric Dental Group were the payment options and discounted prices. The services are basically half price, Galer said.

Both Davis and Galer agree that if they ever need substantial dental care again, they will likely receive it at Geriatric Dental Group. Davis also said she would like to see another facility open closer to her home. Until then, she will keep Federal Way in mind.

"If something disastrous happened, I'd be in my car heading to Federal Way," she said.

Contact Jacinda Howard at jhoward@fedwaymirror.com or (253) 925-5565.

To learn more about Geriatric Dental Group or to schedule an appointment, call (253) 839-1300.

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