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Elderly unable to eat due to dental costs

A 91-year-old who was once honoured by the mayor of Sydney for her work with charities was left unable to eat hard food for two years due to a lack of dental health coverage for older Australians, an inquiry has been told.

Beryl Hawkins dedicated about a quarter of a century to volunteer work in drug and alcohol prevention, homelessness and care for children with cognitive or physical disabilities. 

And she was given $50,000 to set up Interchange Australia, an accredited NDIS provider which assists people with disability to live independently.

Ms Hawkins fears the day she can no longer look after herself and is forced into residential aged care.

“My body is still willing and I still look after myself but I’m terrified of my future of what’s going to happen to me,” she told the aged care royal commission on Thursday.

I just want to stay in my own home; I don’t want to go anywhere else really.”

She had to wait two years and was assessed three times before she received a home care package.

“I couldn’t get the physiotherapist…I couldn’t get my podiatrist. I couldn’t get any help, actually,” she said.

She now receives assistance from three carers but there are still gaps in her health care, particularly in oral hygiene.

Like many older Australians she avoids going to the dentist until there’s a problem, Ms Hawkins told the inquiry.

“Not having teeth and not being able to eat, it means an awful lot to you. You lose your appetite. You don’t eat as you should eat. It’s very hard,” she said.

A quarter of Australians aged over 65 are missing all their teeth with the cost burden of poor oral hygiene estimated at $750 million a year.

She was told there would be a two-year wait at the public hospital for a bottom row of dentures, or face being about $3500 out of pocket.

Ms Hawkins has lived in a public housing unit for more than two decades and is reliant on the aged pension.

She used the money she’d put by for her funeral to pay for the dentures.

“I said I might be dead in two years, so I had to go and pay for my teeth.”

Australian Dental Association NSW president Kathleen Matthews says a mandated oral health assessment should be required whenever a person enters an aged care facility, arrives in a hospital or ends up on a geriatric ward. 

Poor oral and dental health is linked to health issues beyond the pain and discomfort of a sore tooth including malnutrition and risk of pneumonia, Dr Matthews wrote in her submission.

She called for a review of the partnership funding model, telling the inquiry there was much confusion surrounding state and federal responsibilities.

Ms Hawkins told the commission the current system was too confusing.

“Some poor elderly people are not able to reach out for that help. They’re not all capable of finding the home care they need or [even know ] whether they can get home care.”

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