Brace Yourself

At my age, did I want to spend $5,980 and two years on braces?

Say “Aah” …

As I looked at the Payment Options, I had to ask myself one question: at my age, did I want to spend $5,980 and two years on braces?

After leaving my job with benefits in 2008, my visits to the dentist became sporadic. When I got a full-time job in June 2015, my benefits started after thirty days of employment. In August, I went to see my dental hygienist, who I had been going to since the early ’90s, for a cleaning. She noticed that I had a cavity and encouraged me to make an appointment to see the general practice dentist in the office downstairs.

I promptly forgot about my cavity until my hygienist brought it up again when I went back three months later. It was now mid-November, and I had $1,800 in dental benefits that I would lose at the end of the year. I stopped by the other office after my cleaning and made an appointment for the next week. New X-rays, a filled cavity, and a consultation used up almost $400 in one hour. While talking to the dentist, I mentioned how self-conscious I was about the ever-expanding gap between my front teeth and the jagged edges of the top front teeth. He advised me to look into braces. The orthodontist, who was the younger brother of the periodontist, had an office in the same building. I was able to get an appointment for the next day — spending even more of the expiring benefit allowance.

I sat in the office populated by children and their upper middle-class parents, the only middle-aged single adult in the room. I listened as doting parents scheduled the next appointment for their children. The bright, high-tech office had music playing and games available — it was obvious that orthodontics is profitable.

After another set of X-rays and another consultation, a customer service representative took me into a quiet room to review the Payment Options form. Braces would cost $5,980. My insurance would pay $1,500, leaving me responsible for $4,480. If I wrote a check for the full amount, I would get a discount of $224. Not an option. Even the form said, “Orthodontic benefits are rarely paid in one ‘lump sum’ payment.”

If I made a down payment of $800, I would pay $205 for eighteen months. If I made a down payment of $500, I would pay $205 for nineteen months. The down payment could conveniently be divided into two payments. Along with the payment options, I was giving a color photo of my teeth, displaying in embarrassing detail how horrible they looked. How had I managed to even open my mouth, not to mention smile, with those monstrosities in my mouth?

Besides the cost, there was the time involved. I could usher in my sixth decade with a mouth full of multicolored braces or ones that were almost invisible in the front. Not only would I wear braces for two years, I would have to wear a retainer afterwards. But that wasn’t all. My back teeth were shifting, so not only would I be correcting the front teeth, the back teeth would be moved so that a bridge could be done at a later time to fill the back spaces where my wisdom teeth once resided.

It was a lot of work and a lot of money. In previous generations, most people my age would already have dentures.

The orthodontist told me he would discuss my teeth with his brother, and I scheduled an appointment to come back in two weeks, on December 29. Maybe they hoped they could get a few more dollars out of my 2015 benefits. I left overwhelmed by all of the information.

A few days before Christmas, the orthodontist office called to postpone my next appointment. I needed to schedule a consultation with the periodontist brother. I decided to wait until January to proceed with this dental adventure. In the middle of January, the orthodontist sent a Treatment Plan. I had accidentally dropped the envelope next to the mailboxes at my apartment. That night, a neighbor knocked on my door and handed me the envelope.

Maybe it would have been better if I had never received the envelope. The preliminary clinical findings were lengthy. “The lower back teeth on the left side bite too far behind the upper back teeth. Upper and lower teeth are tipped too forward. Front teeth are biting edge to edge. There is excessive space between the upper teeth. The lower teeth are crowded due to insufficient space. The upper back teeth bite on the inside of the left side (crossbite). The upper midline is to the left 2 mm of the facial midline.” This did not sound good.

Additional considerations sounded even worse. I had “generalized bone loss associated with a history of periodontal disease” and “generalized gum recession present.” My poor mouth was “missing the upper first left molar, lower left first molar, upper right second molar and all third molars.” I also had “excessively large maxillary frenum” and “minimal gingival display while smiling.” I didn’t know what that meant, but I may never smile again.

Then there was the treatment plan. “Comprehensive orthodontic treatment, upper and lower braces, upper removable retainer and bonded lower retainer.” And that didn’t count the additional work in the back of my mouth after the braces were removed.

Did I need good teeth during my dotage? If I knew I would live to be in my nineties, I wouldn’t hesitate to invest in nice choppers for the next thirty years. But at my age, nothing is guaranteed and I have no idea how long I would be able to enjoy my new, improved smile and straightened teeth. I thought about all of the young people I had seen in the orthodontist office. They would have years to enjoy their straight, perfect teeth. But would I? Would death trump dental work? I had only been working for a few months — was it too soon to commit to paying $205 for the next nineteen months? The expense, when combined with my rent and utilities, would be half of my monthly salary.

If I knew I would live to be in my nineties, I wouldn’t hesitate to invest in nice choppers. But at my age, nothing is guaranteed.

It is now February, and I still haven’t made an appointment with the periodontist. I continue to wonder about the value of throwing good money after bad teeth at fifty-nine.

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