Dental Clinic Connecting Seniors to Affordable Care


Created: 20 December, 2018
Last update: 27 July, 2022

By Mario A. Cortez

Despite proven links between oral health and general well-being, dental care remains an overlooked area of people’s medical routines. This trend is aggravated among seniors, of which one in four have no teeth and one in five has untreated cavities. A study by the American Dental Association’s Health Policy Institute also shows that approximately 67 percent of low-income seniors did not visit a dentist in the last year. And with an estimated 10,000 people in the United States turning 65 daily, the number of senior citizens with dental service needs keeps growing.

Looking to push back against these trends, a team of volunteers and professionals has been treating local senior citizens for the last two years. With over 8,000 visits administered, the Gary and Mary West Senior Dental Center, located inside downtown’s Serving Seniors center, has helped improve the lives of these patients through a convenient and financially accessible approach to oral health.

Located inside a one-stop center for senior services, the Gary and Mary Senior Dental Center offers affordable dental care with an approach that also combines case management and general well-being practices, putting the initiative of caring for one’s teeth in the patient’s hands.

As its CEO and director, Dr. Karen Becerra leads the clinic and its efforts. She spoke with La Prensa San Diego about how her team approaches oral care for the elderly.

“We go through an easy approach and we establish trust. We go slowly depending on (their comfort level) because if they have a lot of fear you need to explain what you will do to them really well and give them a chance to ask questions,” Becerra said.

Part of this easy approach begins with a health assessment and a workshop which covers basic dental care techniques and good habits. This process also allows the clinic’s staff to get to know what procedures to perform on an individual. It also serves as a chance to update seniors on new developments in the field of dentistry.

“With seniors, it is important to know that they will come with old preconceptions like thinking fluoride is bad or that x-rays are dangerous. You have to work with them and explain that technology has changed and some things have finally been proven safe or unsafe,” Becerra detailed.

Procedures are performed by volunteers with years of field practice and using the latest technology, including an iPad app which shows patients what is happening inside their mouths and what treatment is like.

“Visuals are key for our patients, as they are clear and explanatory and can be used across languages,” said Becerra. “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 oral cancer early and can provide treatment recommendations in alignment with medical professionals.”

Graciela Andrade is one of the clinic’s many recurring patients. She and her husband make the most out of each visit to the Serving Seniors center, where they also receive meals and access to other health and social services.

As a patient, Andrade says the clinic’s team is top notch.

“The care we receive is so great and everybody is very attentive, very patient, and you have to be patient with us old people because you have to explain things to us,” she said. “They have inspired a lot of trust in me and have taken care of my dental health even though I am uninsured.”

If you would like to learn more about the Gary and Mary West Senior Dental Center you can visit https://seniordentalcenter.org/.