Wellness center tackles low-income seniors’ oral health challenges

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.

Photo: Neil Moralee via Flickr

Photo: Neil Moralee via Flickr

An innovative new nonprofit dental clinic in a San Diego senior center is bringing badly needed preventive and restorative care to low-income elders.

The clinic, which celebrated its grand opening in October, also has a broader goal. Organizers at the Gary and Mary West Senior Wellness Center hope that by providing timely oral health care services to patients, they can improve their overall health as well.

“Every patient receives a comprehensive health assessment from a specially trained ‘senior care navigator’ who can identify other medical issues and connect people to other services, many of which are also available at the senior center,” wrote reporter Paul Sisson in a story for the San Diego Union-Tribune.

Each dental visit is an opportunity also to check on whether patients are eating right, taking prescribed medications and having their essential social needs met, said Zia Agha, chief medical officer for West Health, the nonprofit medical research and advocacy organization that supports the dental clinic and additional initiatives to improve the lives of seniors.

Documenting the unmet oral health needs of those using the senior center convinced organizers of the importance of opening a dental clinic. Assessments of 300 seniors revealed that half were having difficulty eating, more than a third experienced dental pain and a quarter had not seen a dentist in more than five years, West Health officials said.

The initiative and its organizers have earned praise from Oral Health America (OHA), a nonprofit advocate for wider access to dental care for seniors.

“I would say they [West Health] are going above and beyond what others are doing,” OHA President Beth Truett told Sisson for his story. ONA’s annual State of Decay report card has served as reminders that barriers to getting dental services can be significant and are common across the country.

Elders may have difficulty getting to dentists and affording care. Medicare, the nation’s health care program for seniors, does not include coverage for routine dental services. Medicaid dental care for poor adults is often hard to find. Paying out of pocket for care can pose challenges for people living on limited or fixed incomes.

A recent survey by the American Dental Association found that nearly half of seniors named cost as the top reason they had not visited a dentist in the past year.

The lack of care takes a toll on elders. Untreated tooth decay causes pain and contributes to tooth loss, poor nutrition, social isolation and declining quality of life. Toothaches and oral abscesses are a leading cause of emergency room visits. Meanwhile, ongoing research is revealing more about the links between oral and systemic health and disease.

Reporters should ask: Is there an effort underway in your state or community to help get needed dental care to seniors?

Leave a Reply