Brushing up on good senior oral health

Good oral health has no age limits.

A new preventative oral health education program that aims to reach nearly 9,000 Big Island seniors 60 and older during the next year launches this week in Hilo.


The inaugural “brush and floss” workshop is from 9:30-11:30 a.m. Thursday at Kamana Senior Center located at 127 Kamana St.

Workshops are a collaboration between the Hawaii County Sub-Area Health Planning Council, which is an advisory council to the state Department of Health’s State Health Planning and Development Agency; Hui Malama Ola Na Oiwi, a nonprofit Native Hawaiian health care organization; Hawaii Dental Service Foundation; and the county.

“There’s a real need for preventative oral health education for seniors, particularly on Hawaii Island, and also probably nationally,” said Karen Ho, comprehensive health planning coordinator for the State Health Planning and Development Agency, who added that traditional Medicare coverage does not provide for dental insurance.

The Sub-Area Health Planning Council was awarded a $60,000 grant from the Hawaii Dental Service Foundation to conduct the workshops.

While Hui Malama Ola Na Oiwi will provide some workshops, the bulk will be handled by the county Parks and Recreation Elderly Activities Division.

The HDS Foundation also will donate 9,000 “goody bags” that include a toothbrush, toothpaste and dental floss.

If dental problems aren’t addressed, they could lead to other, sometimes serious, health issues.

“I think the reason for pursuing something like this is that dental health sort of gets treated separately from medical health or your physical health but … having poor dental health impacts your physical health and also your mental health,” said Scott Daniels, chairman of the Sub-Area Health Planning Council.

While it’s important to teach preventative measures to children, Daniels said in discussion about “how do we reach the younger kids, we realized that basically the grandparents have a lot to do with the health of their grandchildren.”

“We figured that (in) addressing senior oral health, that one, we could help seniors improve their total overall health,” he continued. “In addition, they’re connected, but that gives us an opportunity to also talk about things they could do that could help improve their grandchildren’s oral health.”

But even if the lessons remain with seniors, Daniels said it’s still important because “again, Medicare and Medicaid don’t generally cover adult oral health unless it’s an emergency situation.”

Preventative measures are less costly and help keep individuals out of those emergency situations, he said.

Daniels said dental care is needed on the Big Island, “period.”

“Overall, I just hope that everyone realizes that keeping your natural teeth for your entire life is something you can do, and it’s not that difficult to do the preventative measures you need to do in order to maintain your teeth,” he said. “If you establish those habits for doing those preventative measures when you’re young and make those a lifelong habit, you will keep your teeth, but do other things in that process that will maintain good oral health and prevent you from having other problems that can happen from having uncared for dental problems.”

Roann Okamura, operations director for the Parks and Recreation Department’s Elderly Activities Division, jumped at the chance when she had the opportunity to collaborate on the effort.

Okamura said she tries to partner in anything that can benefit the overall health, well-being and socialization of seniors “to allow them to age in place.”

“The most important thing is awareness and (empowering) our seniors to be responsible for (their) oral health to prevent them from having other possible health issues from oral health issues,” she said, adding that oral health problems can correlate with heart disease, stroke, respiratory diseases and diabetes.

According to Okamura, if the HDS Foundation gives a green light after Thursday, workshops will begin Oct. 8. The county will do about 40 workshops, including wellness fairs in East and West Hawaii.

Data will be collected at the workshops, and those who attend will take a survey before and after, and follow-ups will be done after three and six months.

“What we hope is this will give us a window of what’s out there on our island, then we can know what the needs are then to truly find help for the seniors out there who really need it,” Okamura said.

Ho said a program pilot event last week saw 80-100 seniors, and 60 are already expected at Thursday’s official launch.


“Right now, we’re planning for a big group, and I’m sure if the seniors like it, once the word gets out in the community, (we’re) hoping people will come in and we can meet our targeted goal of 9,000 easily,” she said.

Email Stephanie Salmons at

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