'I just can't afford it': Low-income seniors struggle to find dental care, face 2-year wait for city clinics

Expanding access to free Toronto Public Health dental services is one of 27 recommendations in the city's new seniors strategy. It's heading to the executive committee for a stamp of approval on Monday.

Expanding access to free dental services one of 27 recommendations in city's new seniors strategy

Parkdale resident Leslie Arlene Henderson has lost multiple teeth and has needed a root canal for at least a year. But as a low-income senior, she can't afford major dental work. (Lauren Pelley/CBC News)

Leslie Arlene Henderson has lost multiple teeth. She can't remember the last time she had major dental work. And for the last year, she's been in dire need of a root canal.

But with only $1,000 in monthly income, the 62-year-old Parkdale resident is too strapped for cash to pay for anything beyond a basic dental check-up.

"I had to have some dental work done, but I can't get it done because it's too expensive," she said.

Henderson is one of many low-income seniors across Toronto who are struggling to get dental services, and according to the city's latest seniors strategy report, the current wait for services provided by Toronto Public Health (TPH) clinics is up to two years.

Expanding access to free dental health services through TPH is one of 27 recommendations in the new report heading to the city's executive committee on Monday.

'This is a serious health gap'

"This is a serious health gap," said Dr. Hazel Stewart, director of dental and oral health services at TPH. "The mouth is the only organ in the body that, if you have an infection in it and you don't have insurance and you don't have money to pay — you are completely left on your own."

Poor oral health is tied to chronic diseases like diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and stomach issues, she said. Seniors — who are living longer than ever and now outnumber children for the first time in the city's history — are particularly at risk and often request prompt treatment, Stewart added. 

To address the lengthy wait times, Stewart said her municipally-funded department is requesting an additional $2 million to hire more staff.

But that may necessitate provincial funding from whomever forms the next government after the June election. "It's something that needs to be addressed beyond what the city can afford to do," Stewart said.

Coun. Josh Matlow, the city's seniors advocate, agrees more funding is needed for TPH's budget.

Right now, he added, there's a "significant backlog" with roughly 3,000 low-income seniors struggling to get TPH care.

"If you are a senior who has a significant and serious dental condition, it will impact your basic quality of life," he said.

Accessing dental care is a challenge for many low-income Toronto seniors, and the current wait for free services provided by Toronto Public Health clinics is up to two years. (Yves Choquette)

Housing, jobs hard to find when teeth are in 'rough shape'

Staff at the east-end Inner City Family Health Team see this impact on a near-daily basis.

"We're regularly seeing untreated dental issues and referring, but then we're dealing with various infections," said Jo Connelly, executive director of the Queen Street East clinic.

Many clients who can't afford their much-needed dental work suffer in silence, or simply have their teeth pulled. And Connelly said that creates a vicious cycle, hurting both their health and their ability to find a job or a long-term place to live.

"It's really hard for people to get housing when their teeth are in really rough shape," Connelly said. "Often that's a barrier. Landlords say it's almost a mark of poverty."

In Henderson's case, she does have a roof over her head, but that means her dental work will have to wait. "I just can't afford it," she said.

She's hoping the city keeps pushing to increase dental care access for low-income earners like herself.

"I think it's a great idea, because some people really have problems with their teeth — and they really need them fixed."

About the Author

Lauren Pelley

City Hall reporter

Lauren Pelley is a CBC reporter in Toronto covering city hall and municipal affairs. Contact her at: lauren.pelley@cbc.ca