According to published Statistics Canada figures, seniors represent the fastest growing segment of the Canadian population. In 2001, there were an estimated 3.92 million Canadians over the age of 65. By the year 2021, that number is expected to grow to 6.7 million, and by 2041 will reach 9.2 million, or one in four Canadians.
In the context of international standards, Canadians are blessed with excellent social programs for the benefit of seniors, including Canada Pension Plan (CPP), Compassionate Care Benefit (CCB) and Old Age Security (OAS). In spite of this, however, there are obvious gaps in the social net for seniors, and particularly in the area of health care. Seniors utilize the health care system more than any other group, and in spite of their steadily increasing numbers, federal and provincial governments are spending less per capita on health care than previously, and this negative trend in health care spending appears to be the new norm.
This shortfall in health care funding is aggravated by the fact that certain types of health care, notably dental care, are not funded at all for seniors by government programs. This places an added burden on seniors, many of whom are on fixed incomes, and most of whom have an increased demand for dental services.
Consider for a moment the factors contributing to higher rates of dental disease in the geriatric population. For one, a lifetime of wear and tear on the natural teeth contributes to breakdown of these teeth. Second, periodontal (gum) disease is a lifelong progressive condition which tends to worsen with advancing age. Consider also that most seniors suffer some degree of xerostomia (dry mouth), due to medications and a gradual decrease in activity and production of salivary glands. The resulting dry mouth further increases the risk of both dental decay and gum disease. In addition, the gradual deterioration in the immune system with aging causes increased susceptibility to opportunistic infections such as thrush (a common oral fungal infection). Finally, as a result of the accumulation of exposure to carcinogenic chemicals over a lifetime, the geriatric population has an increased risk for the development of oral cancers.
When these dental factors combine with the limited financial resources of many seniors, it is easy to understand how the geriatric population is more vulnerable to dental disease and dental neglect. In the current political climate, cost cutting and fiscal restraint are evident at all levels of government, and this is certainly understandable in a period of fragile economic recovery. However, there are both provincial and federal elections on the horizon, and as such there is no better time than now to bring the issue of funding for basic dental care for seniors to the attention of local candidates.