Dr. Adam Harwood's dental office (Photo: Harwood) (Photo: Adam Harwood)

While most retirees understand they’ll need to set aside some funds to supplement what their general health care plans won’t cover in retirement, many fail to adequately plan for the dentistry costs they’ll face as they age.

Many retirees are unaware that Medicare’s dental coverage is very limited, most times not covering common procedures like tooth extractions, dental implants, crowns and non-emergency endodontic routines like root canals. This is why it makes sense to budget for these circumstances once your client leaves the protective coverage of a traditional dental plan.

(Related: Dental: The Gum Crisis)

The reality is, unless a retiree enrolls in a Medicare supplement insurance plan, or lives in a state where Medicare will cover most dental procedures, maintaining dental health will likely represent an out-of-pocket medical cost to the retiree.

Could these costs add up and affect retirement savings?

Unfortunately, yes. Teeth vitality has not kept up with our overall increase in human life expectancy. Disorders, infections and damage associated with other injuries, most notably elderly falls, can represent thousands of dollars out-of-pocket costs when not covered adequately by separate dental insurance.

Regular check-ups are important to continue as we age because oral examinations often uncover serious, non-dental afflictions, which, when caught early enough, can be treated effectively and inexpensively. Diabetes, Leukemia, HIV and thyroid irregularities are often first identified in the dentist’s chair and can be costly diseases to combat if gone undetected.

In addition, as we age, the risk for certain conditions such as advanced gum disease and oral cancers, increase. The risk of oral cancers in women over 65 years old, for instance, rises almost 15%.

But regular check-ups can also quickly identify and prevent dental afflictions that require expensive procedures like root canals and tooth replacements.

The medical costs associated with these treatments may take many retirees by surprise the first time they’re encountered -since most people entering retirement are unaware that Medicare doesn’t cover these dental procedures. In fact, according to a study by SeniorLiving.org, almost 50% of seniors over age 65 have not visited their dentist in the past year, citing high costs and fixed incomes as the primary reason. This can be a costly mistake.

So what are some strategies a financial planner might suggest to their clients for covering the additional cost of a retiree’s dental care? And what kind of budgeting parameters should they assume?

According to a recent Kaiser Permanente study, seniors will spend an average of $900 dollars in out-of-pocket costs per annum. And most seniors can expect to spend at least $10,000 in out-of-pocket dental costs over the course of retirement according to HealthView Insights, and significantly more, upwards of $100,000, if they face oral cancer or other catastrophic care.

Here are ways to manage that risk.

1. Save.

Financial planners can advise clients who are in the financial position to do so to set aside a separate “self-insure” fund specifically to offset these dental costs.

2. Insure.

Retirees should also research various Medicare Advantage plans and find ones that specifically include dental coverage, if only to help offset routine costs. Based on their dental history, they should check with the individual plan to see what major dental procedures are included.

3. Look for inexpensive care.

While many states have dental clinics available that offer care for free or a reduced cost service, quality at these clinics varies and the waiting list can be long. The local hospital or Medicaid office will have information on these regional options, but having a separate savings account would prevent having to explore this option.

4. Prevent problems.

Exercise preventive care, by employing a serious dental routine of brushing and flossing (a habit many seniors neglect owing to arthritis or sensitive gums) and getting regular check-ups. Even if paid out-of-pocket, preventive cleanings and visits to the dentist will only cost hundreds of dollars and will save thousands of dollars in procedures that will be faced without preventive measures.

Dental care in retirement is just as necessary as it is at any other stage of life, but without proper planning, it could take a huge bite out of retirement savings. By taking steps as outlined above, make dental care affordable and manageable, so that you’re not tempted to skimp on dental services and put your oral health at risk.

— Read Virginia Works to Improve Long-Term Mouth Care, on ThinkAdvisor.


Adam HarwoodAdam S. Harwood, DMD, is a graduate of the Tufts University School of Dental Medicine with an advanced degree in endodontics. He was the first endodontist in New York to use a surgical operating microscope. He is a member of the American Dental Association and a specialist member of the American Association of Endodontists. He has taught endodontics at dental schools.