I often gaze wistfully at a lovely photo of me at 16 wearing pointy cat-eye glasses. I’m not nostalgic for my pretty young face or the retro glasses. I’m mourning the full set of straight, sparkling teeth. That is the last photo of me with perfect teeth. By age 22 my passport picture shows the same pretty face – but with a snaggle-toothed grin.
I wish I could claim that I took great care of my teeth when I was young, but I didn’t. I chain-smoked (no one knew smoking causes gum disease), and flossing was just too much to ask for a 20-something-year-old who was rebelling against parental strictures. I had what the dentist called “gingivitis,” which got progressively worse. I ignored it.
It wasn’t until I was 40 that my smile improved – but that’s because I spent more money than I could afford getting all my teeth capped.
Before springing for the bridgework, I asked another dentist for a second opinion. He told me flatly, “If you had good teeth and bad gums I’d tell you to have more periodontal work. If you had bad teeth and good gums I’d suggest more bridgework. But you have bad teeth and bad gums, so I don’t know what to tell you.”
I wish he had told me to have all my teeth pulled and get implants back then. But that was not the conservative dental approach, which is always “save the tooth” – at least with patients who have the money for dental work (even if the teeth aren’t worth saving).
“How long will this work last?” I asked my dentist at the time.
“Oh, maybe 15 years,”
The price of “good teeth”
I’d just spent more than $10,000 in 1980 dollars! I dismissed his prediction, thinking I would beat the odds. Fifty-five seemed a long way off and anyway, what were the options? Dentures? No way.
As it turned out, his prediction was optimistic. Those caps started falling apart closer to 10 years later.
Losing teeth is terrifying. The most common anxiety dream is about losing teeth, especially among menopausal women. Makes sense to me. Bad teeth are not only a sign of aging, but a particularly intimate health problem. We kiss, eat and smile with our mouths.It’s easier to admit we have a hip replacement than a denture.
Despite 25 years of drilling, root canals, caps and bridges, periodontal slicing and dicing and countless days and nights of swollen-faced misery, my teeth progressively worsened. I eventually wound up with partial dentures that were studded with more and more false teeth. My life in the chair was excruciating—more in the pocketbook than in the mouth. Having to spend every spare penny on my teeth rather than on a new car, a vacation or even clothes that didn’t come from thrift shops was truly painful.
Not my mother’s dentures: the overdenture
Eventually I did wind up with full dentures at 60. Thank goodness by the time I lost all my teeth, new technology had come up with a better denture. Called overdentures, they snap onto a few implants and are smaller, more comfortable and much more functional than the old-fashioned type. They’re more affordable, too, though far from cheap. However, you still have to remove them.
I take out my dentures at night (at least when I’m alone) and put them back in every morning. Without them, I’m embarrassed about the way my cheeks collapse and afraid the strange metal protuberances coming out of my mouth might frighten small children.
Nevertheless, I must admit that I love my overdentures. The freedom from pain, constant expense and hours in that least relaxing of reclining chairs is liberating.
Calling all denture deniers
It’s time for us denture wearers to come out of the closet. Twenty-five percent of seniors 65-plus have lost all their teeth, and half of all Americans ages 55 to 64 have either full or partial dentures. The percentage rises steadily with age – but you wouldn’t know it, because we all hide it. I’m tired of being terrified to be seen without my false teeth. When I have to leave my denture overnight at the dentist’s office to be sent to the lab for repairs, I hide out at home until the next day when I can pick it up. I don’t even answer the doorbell. After I got divorced 10 years ago I did a lot of dating and always worried that I’d be outed as a denture wearer during a kiss. To my immense relief that never happened.
Like cancer victims who boldly take off their wigs to display their bald heads, I want to stop being ashamed of my toothlessness.
The last time my daughter stayed over, I experimented with toughing it out and left the dentures in their container in the bathroom overnight. I said goodnight to her without them in.
She didn’t even notice.
Are you a secret denture wearer? Would you dare to come out of the closet?