The Second Half: Progressive dental care

By Kathleen D. Tresemer


My semi-annual dental cleaning has come due, and I admit it—I have to fight residual “dentist anxiety” prior to every appointment.

I don’t know about all dentists, but when I grew up in the 1950s and 1960s, visiting our dentist was akin to prison camp torture. Sitting in the waiting room was almost as bad as the actual appointment in the “raised anxiety” category. The screams of other children were enough to terrify the most courageous of the younger-than-10-years-old set.

“Listen to that little boy!” my mother would hiss over the poor kid’s cries. “No child of mine had better act like that!” Having nine kids to haul to the dentist, never mind the cost of such an undertaking, our mom had little time or energy left to comfort or reassure. The unspoken “or else!” at the end of her statement was definitely more horrifying than the monstrous dentist himself. Talk about a catch-22!

If you haven’t reached your Second Half of life, or your childhood dentist was tremendously progressive, I am about to launch into one of those “we walked to school barefoot through the snow, uphill each way” stories—cover your eyes and ears.

The dentist we had, upon reflection, was a sadistic fellow with a kindly face but eyes that flashed an evil glitter. His chuckle, when he was about to inflict some inexplicable pain on one of us, was enough to make the blood run cold. And he never, ever used Novocain or any form of pain management on any of us kids, no matter how strenuously he drilled.

“The man was definitely a sadist!” one of my brothers concurred. “Going to the dentist was like being thrown into a boxing ring blindfolded, with your hands tied behind your back—you knew you were gonna get pounded and you just had to take it.” PHEW! At least I wasn’t the only sissy.

So, is it any wonder in my Second Half, that a trip to the dentist starts the “fight or flight syndrome” surfacing in me? I spent my early adulthood avoiding dental interactions whenever possible, only to end up in crisis around my 40th year.

“Hi! Can I help you?” the smiling face at Rockton Dental Care attempted to comfort me.

“I…I broke a tooth, and I don’t have a dentist,” I was actually shaking by this time.

“Oh! How awful!” Smiling Face exclaimed. “Well, Dr. O’Brien will be able to help you. Are you in any pain?”

“Well, yeah!” I thought that was obvious. The only thing that would drive me, sniffling, into a dentist office is PAIN. I found myself telling her all about my fears and history of dental dismay. After giving me something for the pain and taking my information, Smiling Face set me up for dental work the very next morning. She actually put her hand on mine, looked me in the eye, and promised, “Dr. O’Brien will take good care of you, and you won’t feel a thing!”

She was right…years later, my loyalty to Dr. Ken O’Brien is only exceeded by the maternal bond. His introduction to pain-free dentistry has been one of the momentous occasions in my life, and I depend upon his expert advice to keep me from dental intervention throughout my Second Half.

Like many seniors, I am under-insured and have no dental coverage. Dr. O’Brien gives me a rate that is manageable on my writer’s income: “Lots of older folks don’t have dental insurance, and we can’t have them skipping their regular cleanings,” he says.

His hygienists remind me, “Your best dental insurance is excellent oral hygiene.” In light of this, I use a Sonicare toothbrush and those little plastic picks with floss on ’em. This not only maintains my teeth, but keeps my gums healthy, too.

I checked out this Web site——and found the article “Senior Dental Care” by Lesley Ranft:

“Dental care for seniors involves unique considerations. Seniors are more likely to suffer from a host of oral health issues resulting from the natural aging process, their inability to receive proper oral health care due to financial constraints (no dental insurance) or their inability to provide adequate dental hygiene care for themselves.

“These factors…leave many seniors at risk of ignoring tooth decay and tooth infection until there is no alternative but tooth extraction—which is the only dental procedure covered by many state aid programs such as Medicaid or Medicare.”

So, here’s what we need to do in our Second Half:

· Brush, floss and rinse with mouthwash twice daily and change your brush as recommended;

· Know warning signs, such as tooth sensitivity, mouth sores, loose teeth and jaw popping;

· Visit your dentist at least twice a year;

· Maintain dental appliances such as dentures and bridges; and

· Tell your dentist about any medications you take.

O’Brien’s staff are well trained in putting me at ease—every one of ’em greets me by name. I always say, “Going to Dr. Ken is like a visit to Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood…everyone is happy and caring all the time.” Hey, if I want reality, I’ll go back to the sadist! In my Second Half, I insist my dentist office be a happy fantasyland where no one gets hurt.

And when my teeth are clean, and I’m ready to go home, they hand me a bag of goodies that always includes a homemade cookie. Now THAT is progressive dentistry!

In her second half of life, Kathleen D. Tresemer is both a journalist and an award-winning fiction writer. She lives with her husband on a small ranch in rural Shirland, Ill. Kathleen can be contacted by e-mail at

From the December 2-8, 2009 issue

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