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New WCHC facility will include dental facility for low-income seniors

WCHC executiver director Rosslyn Bentley and manager of community programs and services Gebre Berihun. [Leah Gerber]

A new dental facility for low-income seniors will be built at the new location of the Wellesley Township Community Health Centre, which will be part of the municipality’s new recreation complex.

The Ontario Seniors Dental Care program is a provincial program to help low-income seniors with their dental care that is already up and running, but patients must travel to facilities in Cambridge or Kitchener for treatment. The new facility will lessen wait times and allow patients to be treated locally.

Rosslyn Bentley, executive director of the Woolwich Community Health Centre (WCHC), says testing and assessment is done relatively quickly for low-income dental patients, but wait times for treatment are very long. The wait  time for the Cambridge facility is approximately two years, she said.

This new facility at the Wellesley Township Recreation Centre will alleviate the wait times, allow more people in the region to be treated, allow rural patients to be treated closer to home and in a place that has an understanding of what it means to be rural, said Bentley.

To access the facility, residents can reach out to WCHC, and from there will be connected with an outreach worker who will work with patients to determine eligibility, arrange assessment and also treatment of issues. Help with travel and translation services for Low German are also available, said Bentley.

The program is available for people over age 65. The annual income cut-off to be eligible for the program is  $22,200 for a single person or $37,100  for a couple, said Gebre Berihun, WCHC’s manager of community programs and services. The program is not tied to geography so anyone can get help, regardless of where they live.

Berihun and Bentley say that oral health is a vital aspect of overall well being, especially for seniors. Hypertension, and some cancers are connected with poor oral health, and oral health is a determinant of cardiovascular and mental health, they said.

“People, if they have gaps in their teeth or their teeth are discolored, or they can’t eat comfortably, or their dentures don’t fit well, they won’t socialize,” said Bentley. “They won’t come out to events. And often it leads to social and nutritional issues very typical with frail, elderly people. The nutritional content of their foods deteriorates, their social skills deteriorate.”

One study from the University of Toronto showed that poor oral health in seniors leads to poor mental health, decreased overall health and increased mortality.

When the province first rolled out funding for the dental care program three years ago, the money went to the province’s public health departments. From the Region of Waterloo Public Health Unit, it was distributed around the region. The first priorities were for urban centres, said Bentley. The rural areas were prioritized last because it would require constructing new buildings, as opposed to using urban infrastructure already in place.

At the end of last year, a refreshment in the funding for the program allowed for help to be sent to the rural areas.

“It’s a really significant investment,” said Bentley. “It’s almost double the cost of establishing the program in the urban areas. So I’m really thrilled that (Public Health) would prioritize that. We so often miss out on those kinds of investments, because it is much more expensive to establish things rurally initially.”

The funding refreshment coincided with the planning stages of the Wellesley Township Recreation Centre where the health centre was already going. Bentley jumped on the opportunity to present the case to include a dental suite in the plans.

Bentley and Berihun believe providing services to people closer to where they live, especially in rural areas, is vital.

For example, Bentley pointed to the cultural issues of needing to understand agricultural lives, like the need to avoid booking appointments during agricultural busy seasons. The distance from rural to urban areas for services like dentistry can also be a barrier.

Digital solutions for rural communities can only take a community so far, say Bentley and Berihun.

“Dentistry is the service that has to be delivered to the person,” said Bentley, meaning it can’t be delivered digitally.

“So a frail senior, to be driven for an hour or two to access a service, especially something that could potentially be as uncomfortable as dental surgery, is exhausting. And a lot of frail seniors who want to preserve their energy, they may not make a choice to then access that service, because it’s just too exhausting. And I’ve seen that in different communities where those kinds of lack of local infrastructure really affects people’s choices.”

Bentley and Berihun say that treatable dental conditions are a leading burden on Ontario’s emergency health care system. This is because dentistry is so expensive and treating problems that have been left to become complicated are even more costly.

A 2019 study from the University of Toronto found that each year in Ontario there are more than 136,000 visits to doctors, emergency departments and hospital day-surgery departments for non-traumatic dental conditions (conditions that were not caused by some sort of sudden incident), costing the province approximately $29 million annually.

 “For (low-income) people, (visiting the dentist) is the last thing on their priority list,” said Berihun. “When you have housing, when you have food, when you have gas, basic necessities. It will be at the bottom of the individual’s priority list, then what will  happen is it costs the government at the end of the day. People end up in the emergency (department).”

 “And it’s all preventable,” said Bentley. The key, she says, is for health investments to be made early and appropriately to save everyone a world of pain.

Construction on the Wellesley Township Recreation Centre is scheduled to be complete by the end of 2023. Bentley presented the project to regional council for approval this week.

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