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What's It Like Having Dentures? How I Made the Decision

After neglecting my teeth for years, it was time. There's been some adjustment, but it's been well worth it.

By Steve Uhler

It started with cotton candy and it ended with acrylic teeth.

I was a performing singer-songwriter for many years, but a poor caretaker for my teeth, placing a higher priority on maintaining my trim waistline than my receding gumline. Over decades of neglect, my natural teeth gave up the ghost one by one, tumbling out like slow-motion dice in a rigged game.  From cavities to crowns, partials to bridges, uppers to lowers, my mouth eventually became a  mosaic of my failed attempts to salvage my own teeth.

A dentist explaining denture work. Next Avenue, what is it like to have dentures
Credit: Getty

By the time I was 60, I was out of options. My dentist finally convinced me it was time to face the music. It was either dentures or spend the rest of my days sucking the soup of life through a straw.

Would people know I had dentures the moment I opened my mouth? Would my new dentures slip out in conversation?

Fearing that my days of wine, women and song were behind me, I fretted endlessly: Would people know I had dentures the moment I opened my mouth? Would my new dentures slip out in conversation? Or worse, fly out in mid-song?  Most importantly, I began to obsess over how dentures would affect my love life.

Fidgeting in the chair, I popped the Awkward Question: Can a person tell when they're kissing someone with dentures? Not those 'on the cheek' puckers reserved for aunts at family reunions, but the real thing — intimate, deep and passionate? How would dentures affect my sex life?

My dentist was patient and reassuring. "Dentures have come a long way since George Washington's wooden teeth," he said. "We can make them perfect, or they can be designed to resemble your old, imperfect teeth if you like — chips, coffee stains and all. Ninety percent of your friends won't even notice on a conscious level. Really."

Time to Surrender

I was by no means convinced, but with literally nothing left to lose, it was time to surrender. My dentist smiled. "Nothing to worry about," he said through his own, perfectly-maintained real teeth.

We set the appointment for one week later.

Growing up as a kid, I was haunted with recurring dreams of my teeth falling out en masse — a common primal Freudian nightmare. I equated false teeth with Walter Brennan, the popular character actor in Hollywood's Golden Age. Brennan was playing old codgers in movies while still in his 30s, largely thanks to his tendency to perform toothless.

I hated Walter Brennan.

A Negative Bias Towards Dentures

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, over half of Americans over age 50 have lost at least a third of their natural teeth. Yet a negative bias towards wearing dentures remains obstinately persistent in our culture.

For aging boomers, there is little help or support in our existing health system. Traditional Medicare doesn't cover dentures, an egregious oversight for older adults. And despite the recent development of permanent implants, they remain an unaffordable luxury for many.


Adjusting to My New Dentures

I don't remember much about the procedure except the moment when the dental assistant held a mirror up to my face after the anesthetic wore off and gently said, "Now ... smile."

My lips never felt so heavy. Blinking into my reflection for the first time, I felt a huge weight I'd been carrying for years suddenly evaporate into the ether. My dentures didn't look like false teeth at all. They looked real — natural, uniform, and healthy. My first thought was, "Why did I waste all those years avoiding this?"

The weeks that followed were both challenging and uplifting. Negotiating the newly-altered terrain of my mouth was an ongoing process — applying dental adhesive, adjusting my bite, and accommodating my tongue and speech to the renovated contours of my new teeth.

Re-learning the nuances of clear speech was daunting. Strange, unbidden sounds emanated from my mouth at inappropriate times; inadvertent clicks and unwanted whistles came out of nowhere. Familiar letters became difficult to pronounce; f's, v's, and s's all mushed together into a sibilant stew. 'Slept' became 'schlepped' and 'stoop' morphed into 'shtoop'. My ability to enunciate the Queen's English plummeted, but my gift for inadvertently mastering Yiddish skyrocketed.

As for my fear of kissing, with adjustments, things eventually took their 'new natural' course.

Singing, too, was a problematic hurdle. My new dentures seemed to weigh down my words as if my tongue was in a strait jacket. Simple musical scales loomed like Everest. My vocal range dropped by a semi-tone. What was once a joyful and spontaneous experience became a chore that I avoided. 

As for my fear of kissing, with adjustments, things eventually took their 'new natural' course. Surprisingly, the most vexing issue I faced was how to discreetly remove my dentures before falling asleep at night and hide them without my partner knowing — which led to a lot of stumbling around in the dark. But I learned that partners are called partners for good reason, and usually know more than they let on.

In hindsight, were dentures the greatest thing to ever happen to me? No. I wish I'd heeded all the warnings on my journey. Am I glad I chose to have them? Absolutely. Did I recover my ability to speak with confidence? Yes, with practice.

And the singing? It's still a challenge, but now the obstacles are more psychosomatic than physical. Yesterday while walking to my local gym, I absent-mindedly started singing softly to no one but myself, "You must remember this, a kiss is still a kiss, a sigh is just a sigh". Because I wasn't dwelling on it, the notes and words flowed naturally.

It was a small, sweet epiphany. I'll get there, one note at a time, as time goes by. After all, it ain't over till the skinny guy with the nice teeth sings.

Steve Uhler is a freelance journalist, author, and advocate for active aging, covering the challenges of adjusting to new paradigms in a changing world. He has also interviewed and profiled such diverse figures as music icon Brian Wilson, former Texas State Senator Wendy Davis, filmmaker Richard Linklater and 97-year-old Nobel Prize winner John Goodenough. His work has appeared in outlets including Cox Media, ABC News, Kirkus Book Reviews, and numerous newspapers and magazines. Read More
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