Bringing oral health tips and tools to disabled adults

Mary Otto

About Mary Otto

Mary Otto, a Washington, D.C.-based freelancer, is AHCJ's topic leader on oral health and the author of "Teeth: The Story of Beauty, Inequality, and the Struggle for Oral Health in America." She can be reached at mary@healthjournalism.org.

I recently had the chance to spend the morning with Malissa Savage, a community health worker dedicated to reaching people in need of dental care.

She works for Allegany Health Right, a nonprofit group with a mission to improve the lives of poor and uninsured adults living in a pocket of Appalachia that is located in the far western tip of the state of Maryland.

On visits to senior centers, health fairs, unemployment offices and other sites, Savage offers practical lessons of prevention. She also helps connect people with urgent dental needs to dentists who work with Allegany Health Right to provide care.

Routine dental care is not covered by Medicare and Medicaid dental benefits for adults are scarce in many states, including Maryland, Savage noted, which makes raising awareness about good home care even more important.

On the day I followed Savage, she was lugging a couple of tote bags full of supplies to a local day program for disabled adults.

This wasn’t her first visit to the place and when she got there, she was greeted with smiles and hugs.

In her light and cheerful way, she kept her audience engaged with the creative aid of simple props. She used a big toothbrush and a set of model teeth to remind folks about the importance of brushing. She demonstrated flossing with an outsized Lego brick, a lump of modeling clay and a ball of yarn. She handed the props around, getting members of the audience to try them out, pausing to help a woman with limited use of her hands to find a new way to hold the floss. She showed pictures of teeth destroyed by soda pop and got members of the group to join in a conversation about healthy and unhealthy diets. She stressed the value of drinking plenty of fluoridated water, avoiding between-meal snacks and making regular visits to the dentist.

The climax of her presentation was a bingo game that brought shouts of pleasure from many in the crowd. Instead of numbers, the laminated bingo cards were covered with cartoon images that Savage used to reinforce her lesson.

Winners chose from a bowl of small prizes such as keyrings and pill boxes. Everyone, even the caregivers who worked at the center, left the community room with a new toothbrush, toothpaste and floss. Savage told me that her bingo game is also popular at the senior centers she visits.

Though her style is unfailingly cheerful, she takes very seriously the challenges disabled adults often face in maintaining their oral health.

In this tip sheet you can find out more.

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