Your teeth do more than chew food. They provide structural support for your mouth and cheeks, help you speak clearly and make it possible to form a variety of facial expressions. That’s why good oral hygiene and professional dental care are so important. Unfortunately, some changes associated with aging make seniors more susceptible to oral health problems. If you’ve been avoiding the dentist for a long time, you may also have cavities, gum disease or another condition requiring extensive treatment.
Many seniors also lack access to dental insurance, making it difficult to address minor oral health problems before they turn into serious issues. In 2020, more than half of all seniors had no dental insurance, causing some to delay needed dental care or go without it entirely. Even with dental insurance, it can be difficult for many seniors to afford copays and deductibles associated with dental care.
This guide aims to help seniors avoid serious dental problems by providing tips on maintaining good oral hygiene and explaining the risk factors that make certain dental issues more common in older adults. It also includes an extensive list of resources to help seniors access free or low-cost dental care before minor dental problems turn into more serious ones.
Why Do Seniors Have an Increased Risk of Dental Problems?
While it’s true that you can develop dental problems at any age, seniors have some unique risk factors that make them more likely to lose some of their teeth or develop severe gum disease as they age. These are some of the most relevant risk factors:
- Insurance issues: Health insurance doesn’t cover most dental problems, so many seniors have to buy separate dental insurance or pay in full for any dental services they receive. This can be a barrier for seniors who can’t afford another monthly expense.
- Poor dental hygiene: The longer you go without proper brushing, flossing and professional dental care, the more likely you are to develop tooth decay, gum disease and other dental problems. As a result, more than 20% of Americans are afraid to visit the dentist due to embarrassment over the state of their teeth and gums. Some seniors also avoid the dentist because they’re afraid they’ll need extractions, root canals and other procedures to address the cumulative effects of poor oral hygiene.
- Cost of care: For some seniors, cost is a major barrier to getting regular dental care. Without insurance, a simple cleaning may cost anywhere between $75 and $200. If you have a dental problem requiring treatment, the cost of care may increase substantially. The Illinois Department of Central Management Services reports that the cost of treating gum disease ranges from $500 to $10,000, for example.
- Lack of transportation: If you don’t drive and don’t have access to reliable public transportation, it can be difficult to get to the dentist when needed. It can also be difficult to get to the dentist if you’re homebound and don’t have a friend or family member who can drive you. In 2020, about 13% of older Americans were considered homebound, making this a somewhat common problem. If you can’t get routine dental care, you may develop cavities, gum disease or other oral health problems.
- Medication usage: Seniors are more likely to take prescription medications, some of which cause dry mouth. A lack of saliva also contributes to cavities and other dental problems. More than 40% of older adults take five or more prescriptions each day, increasing the risk.
- Chronic medical conditions: Certain health conditions increase the risk for oral health problems. Some of these conditions are more common in older adults than in younger people. For example, uncontrolled diabetes is a risk factor for gum disease.
The Most Common Oral Health Conditions in Seniors
Over time, a lack of preventive care — combined with financial difficulties, chronic medical conditions and/or the use of certain prescription medications — may lead to the development of serious oral health problems. The table below describes some of the most common conditions and explains how they can impact you.
|Condition||Description||Why Are Seniors Susceptible?|
Signs and Symptoms of Oral Health Conditions in Older Adults
Oral health conditions cause a variety of signs and symptoms. If you notice any of the following, schedule an appointment with a dentist as soon as possible.
|Bleeding or swollen gums||
|Persistent bad breath||
Tips to Help Seniors Maintain Good Oral Hygiene
When Should You See a Dentist?
Most people don’t look forward to visiting the dentist, but there are some dental symptoms you really shouldn’t ignore. If you experience any of the following, schedule an appointment with a dental professional.
- Chipped or cracked tooth: If you chip or crack a tooth, you may experience pain any time you chew something. Without treatment, the damaged tooth may become infected.
- Bleeding gums: Healthy gums don’t bleed when you brush or floss. If you see blood on your toothbrush or in the sink, it may be a sign of gum disease.
- Persistent bad breath: It’s normal to have bad breath after eating a garlicky meal or drinking coffee, but if your breath remains bad after you brush and use mouthwash, you may have gum disease, cavities or another dental problem.
- Chronic dry mouth: You need plenty of saliva to wash away the bacteria that causes plaque and bad breath. If you always have a dry mouth, consult a dentist before you start to develop cavities.
- Tooth pain: Depending on how severe it is, tooth pain can make it difficult to chew, talk or even get a good night’s sleep. See your dentist to find out what’s causing the pain and address the problem.
Resources to Help Seniors Pay for Dental Care
If you can’t afford to pay full price for dental care, several programs are available to defray your out-of-pocket costs.
Medicaid is a government insurance program for applicants with limited income and assets. Almost all states offer categorical eligibility for older adults, meaning you may be eligible even if your financial resources exceed the regular limits. Although the federal government doesn’t require Medicaid plans to include dental coverage, many states cover at least some type of dental care.
You may be eligible if you meet the following requirements:
- You reside in the state where you plan to receive Medicaid benefits.
- You’re a U.S. citizen or belong to an eligible immigrant category.
- You meet your state’s financial eligibility requirements.
How to Apply for Medicaid
Visit the Medicaid website to find the contact details for your state. You can call the telephone number listed or click the state website link for more information.
Medicare provides health coverage for seniors and some younger people with disabilities. Although Original Medicare doesn’t include dental coverage, many Medicare Advantage providers cover routine cleanings, dental X-rays, dentures and other dental services. If you want dental coverage, compare plans carefully to find one that covers the services you need.
To enroll in Medicare Advantage, you must meet the following requirements:
- Eligible for and enrolled in Medicare Part A and Medicare Part B
- U.S. citizenship or lawful resident status
- Reside within the region covered by your selected Medicare Advantage Plan
How to Apply for Medicare
If you’re eligible for Medicare, apply online. Once you sign up for Medicare, you can shop for Medicare Advantage Plans and enroll in the one that has the best combination of coverage and affordability. Medicare.gov has a tool that allows you to compare multiple Medicare Advantage Plans and find out how much you can expect to pay for certain services with each plan offered in your area. An alternative way to apply is through SHIP, a free counseling service for recipients of Medicare.
Student-Run Dental Clinics
Many dental schools run dental clinics staffed by students and faculty members. These clinics give students an opportunity to practice their new skills. In turn, patients have access to high-quality dental care at a reduced cost.
Each clinic has its own eligibility guidelines and operating schedule. To find out if you qualify, contact the clinic nearest you for information on becoming a new patient.
How to Access Care at Dental Clinics
Use the table below to find a dental school in your area.
If you served in the Armed Forces, you may qualify for dental care through the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Dental services are provided in VA facilities all over the country.
The amount of coverage provided depends on your service history. Full coverage is available if you have a 100% disability rating for a service-connected disability, you have a dental condition that’s classified as service-connected compensable or you were a prisoner of war. One-time dental care is available to veterans who served for 90 days or more during the Persian Gulf War and veterans who are enrolled in the Homeless Veterans Dental Program.
How to Apply
Visit the Department of Veterans affairs website to fill out the application form. You’ll need to sign in to your VA account before proceeding.
Free Dental Care for Seniors With Limited Financial Resources
With prices rising quickly and many other necessities competing for limited financial resources, some seniors can’t afford to pay anything out of pocket for dental care. If this applies to you, one of the organizations below may be able to help. These organizations provide free dental care to those in need.
Dental Lifeline Network
Dental Lifeline Network offers no-cost dental care to seniors and younger adults with permanent disabilities. You may also be eligible if you’re considered medically fragile. Contact the program in your state to find out more about the eligibility requirements.
|Colorado||Denver Metro: (303) 534-3931
Outside Denver Metro: (303) 534-3863
|New Hampshire||(603) 826-6408|
|New Jersey||(973) 967-9171|
|New Mexico||(505) 298-7206 ext. 204|
|New York||(212) 598-9000|
|North Carolina||(919) 677-9001|
|North Dakota||(701) 729-2731|
|Pennsylvania||Southeast PA: (724) 568-4343
Other PA regions: (717) 776-3262
|Rhode Island||(401) 821-8656|
|South Carolina||(888) 322-9527|
|South Dakota||(605) 224-4012|
|Washington, D.C.||(855) 293-0119|
|West Virginia||(304) 919-1579|
Free Dental Clinics
If you’re unable to access dental care via the Dental Lifeline Network, use the table below to find a free dental clinic in your state.
|State||Clinic Name||Telephone Number||Service Area|
|Alabama||Interfaith Ministries Adult Dental Clinic||(256) 237-1472||Calhoun County|
|Alabama||Mercy Medical Clinic||(334) 501-1081||Lee County|
|Alaska||Chalkyitsik Village Clinic – Tanana Chiefs Conference||(907) 452-8215||Chalkvistsik Area|
|Alaska||Annette Island Service Unit (AISU) Outpatient Medical Clinic||(907) 886-4741||Metlakatla, Alaska (Serving American Indians/Alaskan Natives)|
|Arizona||Poore Free Medical Clinic||(928) 213-5543||Coconino County|
|Arizona||SVDP Medical and Dental Clinic||(602) 266-4673||Phoenix area|
|Arkansas||Community Dental Clinic||(479) 253-5547||Crawford and Sebastian Counties|
|Arkansas||Cooperative Christian Ministries and Clinic||(501) 318-1153||Hot Springs area|
|California||Suitcase Clinic/First Presbyterian Church of Berkeley||(510) 269-7242||Berkeley area|
|California||MCCN North Hills Clinic||(818) 895-3100||San Fernando Valley|
|Colorado||Mission Medical Center||(719) 219-3402||Pikes Peak region|
|Connecticut||Goodwin College Dental Clinic||(860) 218-1800||East Hartford|
|Delaware*||Westside Family Healthcare – Dover Medical and Dental||(302) 678-4622||Dover area|
|Delaware||HJMC – Eastside Medical Center||(302) 655-6187||Wilmington area|
|Florida||Flagler County Free Clinic||(386) 437-3091||Flagler County|
|Florida||St. Luke’s Free Medical and Dental Clinic||(352) 602-4640||Marion, North Seminole, North Orange and Lake Counties|
|Georgia||Athens Nurses Clinic||(706) 613-6976||Athens-Clarke County|
|Georgia||The Ben Massell Dental Clinic||(404) 881-1858||Butts, Cherokee, Clayton, Cobb, Coweta, DeKalb, Douglas, Fayette, Fulton, Gwinnett, Henry, Paulding and Rockdale Counties|
|Hawaii||Aloha Medical Mission Dental Clinic||(808) 847-3400||Honolulu area|
|Hawaii||Hawai’i Island HIV/AIDS Foundation – West Hawai’i – Palani Court||(808) 331-8177||Kailua, Kona and Hawai’i|
|Idaho||Genesis Community Health – Caldwell Clinic||(208) 455-1143||Canyon County|
|Idaho||Pocatello Free Clinic||(208) 233-6245||Southeast Idaho|
|Illinois||Champaign-Urbana Public Health District||(217) 352-7961||Champaign-Urbana|
|Illinois||Peoria City/County Health Department||(309) 679-6000||Peoria City|
|Indiana||Southeast Indiana Health Center||(812) 932-4515||Franklin and Ripley Counties|
|Indiana||Trinity Free Clinic||(317) 819-0772||Hamilton County|
|Iowa||Community Health Free Clinic||(319) 363-0416||Marion County and surrounding areas|
|Iowa||Iowa City Free Medical Clinic||(319) 337-4459||Johnson County|
|Kansas||JayDoc Free Clinic||(913) 387-1202||Kansas City area|
|Kentucky||Nelson County Community Clinic||(502) 349-5990||Nelson County|
|Kentucky||Med Center Health Community Clinic||(270) 901-0629||Allen, Butler, Hart, Metcalfe, Simpson, Warren, Barren, Edmonson, Logan and Monroe Counties|
|Louisiana||Community Healthworx||(318) 767-9979||Avoyelles, Catahoula, Concordia, Grant, LaSalle, Rapides, Vernon and Winn Parishes|
|Louisiana||Calcasieu Community Clinic||(337) 478-8650||Allen, Beauregard, Calcasieu, Cameron and Jefferson Davis Parishes|
|Maine||Dental Hygiene Clinic at University of Maine at Bangor||(207) 262-7872||Bangor area|
|Maine||The Root Cellar||(207) 774-3197||Portland area|
|Maryland||Annapolis Outreach Center||(443) 481-3599||Anne Arundel County area|
|Maryland||Frederick County Health Department||(301) 676-3188||Frederick area|
|Massachusetts||India Society Worcester Free Health Stop||(508) 753-3120||Greater Worcester area|
|Massachusetts||UMass Memorial Ronald McDonald Care Mobile||(508) 334-6073||Worcester County|
|Michigan||Barry-Eaton District Health Department – Eaton County Office||(517) 543-2430||Eaton County|
|Michigan||Presbyterian Health Clinic of Branch County||(517) 278-6068||Branch County|
|Minnesota||HealthFinders Collaborative – Faribault Office||(507) 323-8100||Faribault area|
|Minnesota||Sharing & Caring Hands Dental||(612) 338-4640||Minneapolis|
|Mississippi||Fellowship Health Clinic||(601) 255-5077||Lamar County, Forest County and Hattiesburg area|
|Mississippi||Jackson Free Clinic||(601) 355-5161||Jackson Metro|
|Missouri||Medical Missions for Christ Clinic||(573) 346-7777||Miller, Camden and Morgan Counties|
|Missouri||Hannibal Free Clinic||(573) 248-8307||Northeast Missouri|
|Montana||Shepherd’s Hand Free Clinic||(406) 260-3502||Whitefish area|
|Nebraska||People’s City Mission Free Clinic||(402) 817-0980||Lincoln and Lancaster Counties|
|Nevada||Ronald McDonald Care Mobile – Elko County||(775) 738-1553||Elko County and surrounding areas|
|Nevada||Fallon Tribal Health Clinic – Shoshone Tribe||(775) 423-3634||Fallon area (Serving members of federally recognized tribes)|
|New Hampshire*||Coos County Family Health Services – Dental||(603) 752-2424||Coos County|
|New Hampshire||Goodwin Community Health||(603) 749-2346||Strafford County|
|New Jersey*||Southern Jersey Family Medical Centers – Atlantic City Center||(609) 572-0000||South Jersey area|
|New Jersey||Neighborhood Health Center Elizabeth||(908) 355-4459||Elizabeth area|
|New Mexico||Albuquerque Health Care for the Homeless||(505) 242-4644||Albuquerque area|
|New Mexico||Villa Therese Catholic Clinic||(505) 983-8561||Santa Fe area|
|New York||SUNY Erie Student Dental Hygiene Clinic||(716) 851-1336||Buffalo|
|New York||New Life Community Health Center||(718) 565-9844||Queens area|
|North Carolina||Hope Clinic||(252) 745-5760||Beaufort, Craven and Pamlico Counties (Serving adults between the ages of 18 and 64)|
|North Carolina||Blue Ridge Free Dental Clinic||(828) 743-3393||Transylvania, Macon, Jackson and Swain Counties|
|North Dakota||Third Street Clinic||(701) 772-1263||Greater Grand Forks|
|North Dakota||Family HealthCare Center||(701) 551-2449||Fargo|
|Ohio||Open M Free Clinic||(330) 434-0110||Greater Akron|
|Ohio||Good Samaritan Free Health Center||(513) 246-6888||Hamilton County|
|Oklahoma||Crossings Community Clinic||(405) 749-0800||Oklahoma County|
|Oklahoma||Lighthouse Medical Ministries||(405) 602-6371||Oklahoma City area|
|Oregon||Caring Hands Free Dental Services||(541) 937-2786||Lowell area|
|Oregon||Portland Community College Dental Clinic||(971) 722-4909||Portland area|
|Pennsylvania||Focus Pittsburgh Free Health Center||(866) 267-3083||Pittsburgh area|
|Pennsylvania||Ann Silverman Community Health Clinic||(215) 345-2260||Bucks County|
|Rhode Island||Rhode Island Free Clinic||(401) 274-6347||Rhode Island|
|South Carolina||Anderson Free Clinic||(864) 226-1294||Anderson County|
|South Carolina||Mercy Medicine Free Clinic||(843) 667-9947||Marion, Williamsburg and Florence Counties|
|South Dakota*||South Dakota Department of Health||(605) 773-3361||Offices throughout South Dakota; contact SDDOH for information on your local clinic|
|South Dakota||Faith Community Health Center & Faith Dental Clinic||(605) 967-2644||Faith area|
|Tennessee||The Free Medical Clinic||(865) 483-3904||Roane, Anderson and Morgan Counties|
|Tennessee||Smiles Dental Clinic||(423) 228-3077||South Pittsburg|
|Texas||San Jose Clinic||(713) 228-9411||Houston area|
|Texas||The Interfaith Community Clinic||(281) 364-7889||Oak Ridge area|
|Utah||The Doctors Volunteer Clinic – St. George||(435) 656-0022||St. George area|
|Utah||Salt Lake Donated Dental Services||(801) 972-2747||Salt Lake City area|
|Vermont||Vermont Health Department||(802) 863-7200||Offices in multiple counties; contact VTDOH for information on your local clinic|
|Vermont||Rutland Free Clinic||(802) 775-1360||Rutland area|
|Virginia||The CornerStone Free Health Clinic||(804) 769-2996||King & Queen, Essex and King Counties|
|Virginia||Lloyd F. Moss Free Clinic||(540) 741-1061||Fredericksburg; King George, Caroline, Spotsylvania and Stafford Counties|
|Washington||King County Project Access||(206) 788-4204||Kitsap, King and Snohomish Counties|
|Washington||Swedish Community Specialty Clinic||(206) 860-6656||Seattle area|
|West Virginia||West Virginia Health Right – Covenant House Clinic||(304) 414-5949||Charleston area|
|West Virginia||Ebenezer Medical Outreach||(304) 523-0753||Huntington|
|Wisconsin||InHealth Community Wellness Clinic||(608) 375-4324||Crawford and Grant Counties|
|Wisconsin||Open Door Clinic||(715) 720-1443||Chippewa County|
|Wyoming*||Community Health Centers of Central Wyoming – Casper||(307) 233-6000||Central Wyoming|
|Wyoming||Cheyenne Health and Wellness Center||(307) 635-3618||Laramie County|
* Delaware, New Hampshire, New Jersey, South Dakota and Wyoming don’t have any free clinics other than Dental Lifeline Network. The clinics listed set their fees based on a sliding scale, meaning they adjust their fees based on your income.