Tucked away upstairs in the Serving Seniors’ Gary and Mary West Senior Wellness Center on Fourth Avenue in Downtown, there’s a small but mighty nonprofit dental clinic improving the lives of low-income San Diego County seniors.
The American Dental Association’s Health Policy Institute states that approximately 67 percent of low-income seniors did not visit a dentist in the last year. The top three barriers to dental care are high cost, transportation and lack of providers accepting Denti-Cal. Seniors attending the center live primarily on less than $850 a month and often have to choose between paying for basic necessities like rent, food or medications, making dental care a lower priority. Some seniors even believe it is no longer necessary to visit the dentist as they get older.
“Poor dental health is a silent epidemic for seniors,” said Becerra. “Research shows there are links between tooth infections and chronic conditions like diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and respiratory disease, which can be especially devastating to older adults. What happens in the mouth doesn’t stay in the mouth. When treating the root causes of dental pain, we aim to decrease other types of disease and infection that would affect other parts of the body.”
Becerra became a dentist because she had a deep desire to help others. Caring deeply about alleviating people in pain, dentistry was a natural fit for her as it allows her to be empathetic and artistic at the same time. However, before helping to establish the nonprofit dental center for seniors, she was in private practice. Eight years ago, she was traveling in a single-engine plane that failed in the air and she lived through what she thought were going to be the last minutes of her life. After landing safely, she decided to move from private practice and devote her time to a larger cause that will leave a legacy. Together with philanthropists Gary and Mary West, she was able to create a model for holistic patient-centered care that aims at being replicated in other California communities and across the U.S.
The senior dental center links high-quality and affordable oral health care with a suite of nutrition, case management and wellness services offered at Serving Seniors’ Gary and Mary West Senior Wellness Center, creating a one-of-a-kind, integrated community-based system of care for older adults.
Before treatment can begin, patients participate in a comprehensive health assessment and attend an oral health education workshop. The workshops give patients the knowledge and tools to develop healthy habits and self-care and also help the senior dental center team understand the overall needs of their patients. Once in treatment, Dr. Becerra and her team use state-of-the-art technology, including the American Dental Association’s Chairside Instructor app for the iPad, to show patients what is happening in their mouths and what the prescribed treatment will involve.
“Visuals are key for our patients as they are clear and explanatory and can be used across languages,” Becerra said. “This is important given our diverse patient population and also the severity of the cases — some seniors need root canals, others need tooth extractions or new denture work. We are also able to detect signs of oral cancer early and can provide treatment recommendations in alignment with medical professionals.”
Patients come from throughout San Diego County, not just from Downtown San Diego where the center is located. The majority of patients seen at the senior dental center are eligible for Denti-Cal, the dental program within California’s Medicaid (Medi-Cal) program. The senior dental center team helps patients navigate the Denti-Cal system and also provides services based on a sliding fee scale.
Patients like Jeralene Taylor, a military veteran and a resident of Lemon Grove. She needed dental work and was encouraged to come to the Gary and Mary West Senior Dental Center by a woman that lives in her building. Becerra and her team had to be resourceful to complete a treatment plan that involved removal of some complex non-functional implants that were causing her pain. Parts of the non-functional implants were failing, and she was unable to afford the extractions. Taylor was limited in what she could eat and had opted to not to smile anymore. She also needed to have some cavities filled to be ready to receive a full and lower partial set of dentures.
“The treatment has changed my life,” Taylor said. “I simply couldn’t afford it and can now eat things I couldn’t eat before, and I now have a clean and healthy mouth. I can speak, and I can even smile.”
Taylor found such great benefit in her dental journey that she is now an oral health ambassador encouraging other seniors to get checked and to receive help for their dental health.
“San Diego does not have a dental school, which typically provides a safety net for low-income individuals to receive oral health care,” Becerra said. “We are proud to be a part of the expanding safety net making San Diego a hub for dental innovation, which includes the UCSD Student-Run Free Clinic and the Veteran’s Village. By focusing on seniors, the Gary and Mary West Senior Dental Center is working to ensure that this rapidly growing demographic receives the care they need.”
Dr. Tina Beck is a dental specialist from Scripps Ranch who volunteers her time at the senior dental center.
“As a periodontist, I have a lot of senior patients, and I know many cannot afford high-quality dental care and must resort to community clinics or emergency hospital care where they are simply treated to prevent life-threatening infections,” Beck said. “In contrast, the GMWSDC provides high-quality care, in a modern facility, by a highly knowledgeable and caring team. I am proud to be able to serve our aging population to help them improve their quality of life.”
Becerra wants to help more San Diego County seniors access oral health care but she cannot do it alone. That is why the senior dental center established an Oral Health Peer Ambassador Program, which allows the center to add to their continuum of holistic services and extends the center’s successful dental education workshops outside of the classroom into a familiar environment – the main floor of the Serving Seniors’ GMWSDC. The pilot program began training ambassadors in August, with outreach that commenced in November.
“The ambassadors are patients of the senior dental center, who have completed treatment and can speak to their experience. They also received training to answer questions about how to access dental services, how to maintain a healthy mouth, oral hygiene adaptive aids and products, and the importance of seeing a dentist regularly,” Becerra said. “Through learning and discussing issues with their peers, seniors can empower themselves to maintain a healthy mouth at home and take the first step to making a dental appointment.”
The senior dental center recently added a new full-time managing dentist to the team, who joins Becerra and Dr. Vicki Petropoulos, a board-certified prosthodontist, and the rest of the team in providing care to senior patients. Sharilyn Moniz, DDS, is a full-time dentist who joined the team in September 2018. She is a practicing general dentist of 15 years with experience in hospitals, private practice, corporate dentistry, and community health clinics. She has found her niche in community health dentistry, where her primary focus is improving the patient’s oral health by helping to prevent and treat all oral related disease.
Individuals, businesses, and licensed dental professionals can all support the nonprofit senior dental center. In addition to financial donations to support center operations and also direct services for seniors, businesses can sponsor the education workshops and ambassador program. Licensed dental specialists can assist Drs. Becerra, Petropoulos and Moniz to see patients who need advanced treatments. Volunteer specialists like Dr. Beck donate their time and skills on some Fridays.
“I love that I get to provide much-needed quality dental services to the underserved in our community, alongside the kindest of dentists, hygienists, and supportive staff,” Beck said. “It is a wonderful experience.”
“It’s been an amazing two years since we opened our doors. The need is great to keep seniors healthy and independent – and to put a smile on their faces where for years there may have been none is priceless” Becerra said. “Our mission-centered work relies on our collaborative partners, volunteers, and donations from the public.”
To learn more about the nonprofit Gary and Mary West Senior Dental Center, to sign up to volunteer, or to make a tax-deductible donation, please visit seniordentalcenter.org.