Gary Tetz

Some people do their best thinking during meditation or yoga. For others it’s the shower, or while they’re swimming from Cuba to Florida. Personally, some of my deepest, most insightful thoughts have occurred while my mouth is filled with fingers and dental tools.

As I lay in the dentist chair last week like an Apollo astronaut riding a rocket of pain, I was blessed with two hours of nitrous oxide-fueled introspection. Why did I wait so long? How much will this cost? Will I soon join the estimated one-quarter of U.S. adults over the age of 65 who have lost all their teeth? I didn’t get any answers, probably because no one could understand my grunted questions.

We’ve got an oral health care crisis festering in the mouth of America, one that was graphically illustrated by the horrified look on the face of my hygienist. I had only signed up for a simple cleaning and some x-rays but was quickly upgraded to more frightening procedures. The dentist grabbed my jaw like a farrier shoeing a horse, and after an afternoon spent squirming and recoiling like a terrified child, I left — the proud and aching owner of two crowns, with a possible root canal in my future.

I’m not alone in putting off routine dental care until it becomes a crisis, but that’s no comfort. A 2012 Senate committee report estimates that up to 130 million of us don’t have dental insurance, and the resulting years of deferred maintenance are already causing serious problems. Especially for the elderly— and particularly for those in long-term care

I’m not qualified to discuss the history and rationale for the low priority placed on adult dental care, whether by health reform advocates, private insurers, Medicare or Medicaid. But the evidence linking poor oral health to life-threatening and expensive conditions such as heart disease and diabetes is growing, and the negative implications down the road for all of us demand urgent action. Something more than just remembering to floss. 

Things I Think is written by Gary Tetz, who cobbles these pieces together from his secret lair somewhere near the scenic, wine-soaked hamlet of Walla Walla, WA. Since his debut with at the end of a previous century, he has continued to amuse, inform and sometimes befuddle long-term care readers worldwide.