Poor oral health can create huge barriers for seniors, working poor and those living in poverty

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On the worst days it was a struggle to breathe for one Woodstock woman whose poor oral health also led to a lack of clarity and depression.

Some mornings it took everything she had just to get herself out bed.

“I felt like I had no energy,” said the former factory worker who didn’t want to be identified for this story. “The infection was there for so long, I had no idea.”

The 47-year-old, who now works in social services, said during her time working in a factory, she had no coverage for dental work, and didn’t worry about it too much.

“I think in some ways I had a fear of a dentist but there was no money anyway and that reinforced the idea that I had no reason to go,” she said.

But along the way she developed sinus problems, which doctors assumed were allergies and controlled by inhalers and medications.

But she also periodically had toothaches, and her rotten teeth also held her back from pursuing better jobs or moving up the ladder at work.

For fear of being ostracized, she learned not to smile.

“I was always worried that people would look at me and think that’s not very professional,” she said.

It was only after receiving dental services, while utilizing social services, that she learned the truth.

“They told me that I had so much infection in my gums and that an abscessed tooth had damaged my sinuses,” she said. “Once the work had been done and began to heal, I could actually breathe.”

According to Jo-Anne Orton, co-ordinator of the Oxford Oral Health Access Initiative, this woman’s dental health woes are not unusual in Oxford County, where one-third of the population has no dental benefits.

The initiative’s goal is to look at gaps in oral care, gather stories and examine different levels of care.

Orton said in 2012 in Oxford County, the cost to the healthcare system for residents who visited the emergency department for dental issues totaled $540,000.

“All they can do is give out antibiotics and pain killers,” she said. “There is only so much they can do.”

Many who cannot afford dental care suffer daily with high pain levels and say they “just deal with it.”

“People have said to me because of the pain they’re in, they have considered suicide,” she said. “Once the oral pain is dealt with, they say they don’t feel that way anymore.”

And poor oral care has also been connected to a host of diseases including diabetes, cardiovascular disease and arthritis.

“Poor oral health contributes to overall poor health,” she said.

In Ontario, once a person turns 18 they are no longer eligible to be part of the Healthy Smiles program that supplies dental care to children of low-income families.

“If people are low-income, they have to pay out of their own money and most people don’t have the money to pay for dental care,” Orton said. “OHIP doesn’t fund things like oral health.”

The Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care has promised that by 2025, it will extend coverage for those in need beyond 18 years of age.

“There’s a huge gap in services,” Orton said. “Nine years is not acceptable. We need to make that happen sooner than later.”

Orton said the Oxford Oral Health Access Initiative, which is supported by many agencies across the region, is investigating how to ensure access to dental care for those currently being denied access to the system.

They are asking local residents to contact them if they have positive or negative dental oral health stories.

“(I hope) people can share their stories of how dental care created a change in their life… and impacted their self esteem,” she said.

The initiative is currently working on a two-year needs assessment for the county that will allow more access to dental care.

“Hopefully we will have a plan on how to provide oral health care to people with low incomes in Oxford County,” she said.

Orton can be reached by email at



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