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Clinic Restores San Diego Seniors’ Smiles With Much-Needed Dental Care

Clinic Restores San Diego Seniors' Smiles With Much-Needed Dental Care


Dr. Irvin Silverstein, director and advisor, UC San Diego Student-Run Free Dental Clinic


Shirley Ruiz has terrible teeth. She never really took care of them.

“Not brushing regularly. I didn’t really floss, ’cause my teeth were really crooked," Ruiz explained. "And so it was hard to get the dental floss in there and that. And so, yeah, tooth decay. And really not eating right, neither.”

But thanks to the Senior Dental Center in downtown San Diego, Ruiz is getting a set of new teeth.

Dr. Vicki Petropoulos makes sure the so-called “partials” fit just right.

“Shirley here is missing some teeth," Petrpoulos said. "So we’re making her partials on the top and the bottom, and today we’re doing what’s called the tooth try-in visit.”

Photo credit: Kris Arciaga

Shirley has a dental appliance inserted into her mouth, Feb. 15, 2017.

She slipped a device into Ruiz's mouth.

“Gently close, Shirley, thank you. Good. Very good.”

Gum disease, lost teeth

Cavities, gum disease and lost teeth are commonplace among seniors. That’s due in part to the fact that Medicare doesn’t pay for dental care. That means a trip to the dentist is a luxury many seniors can’t afford.

A new dental clinic in downtown San Diego is trying to make dentistry more affordable for needy seniors.

The dental clinic is on the second floor of the Gary and Mary West Senior Wellness Center in downtown San Diego.

The Wellness Center is like a one-stop shop for seniors. They can get two meals a day, see a doctor, and have access to financial and mental health counseling.

Gary, Mary West Foundation

The dental center is funded primarily by the Gary and Mary West Foundation, which put up $2 million to get the clinic off the ground.

Shelley Lyford, the foundation's CEO, said the Wests came up with the idea when they were serving meals to seniors.

Photo credit: Kenny Goldberg

Gary and Mary West Foundation CEO Shelley Lyford is shown in her office, Feb. 7, 2017.

“And it was during their interactions with seniors that they actually discovered seniors covering their mouth when they would talk with them, and actually, even though the seniors were often malnourished and very hungry, they were not able to eat the food that Gary and Mary were serving," Lyford said.

Most of the patients at the Senior Dental Center live below the federal poverty level. Their mouths tend to be in horrible shape.

The clinic’s dental director, Dr. Karen Becerra, describes an X-ray of one of her typical patients.

“This patient had an abscess in that area, came with pain, they have lots of missing teeth, the bite is completely off on that side, this tooth has come out," she said. "If you see, lots of bone loss in the upper and the lower.”

Becerra said these problems could have been taken care of years ago with much simpler and less expensive treatments.

Services provided on a sliding scale

Now, it’s up to Becerra and her colleagues to restore patients’ oral health the best they can.

All of the services are provided on a sliding scale, based on a patient’s ability to pay.

The clinic has treated more than 350 people since it opened last June. But Becerra says because of high demand, many patients have to wait months to be seen.

She said our society needs to do better by its seniors.

Photo credit: Kris Arciaga

The clinic's dental director, Dr. Karen Becerra, points to a patient's X-ray, Feb. 15, 2017.

“I think the longer we wait, in providing the services that they need, the more it’s gonna cost us all, the more that their quality of life is gonna be affected, the more that they’re gonna have to have disease that is continuing advancing," Becerra said. "We’re trying our best, but we only have four chairs.”

Low-income seniors can qualify for Denti-Cal, California’s dental program for the poor. The problem is most dentists won’t treat Denti-Cal patients because the reimbursement rate is so low, it doesn’t even cover their costs.

The Gary and Mary West Foundation wants to find out if its dental clinic is viable.

Dental intervention

The foundation is collecting data on a variety of fronts.

CEO Lyford said researchers want to see if the center could improve its operations and become more efficient. They also want to find out whether a dental intervention makes seniors happier, and improves their quality of life.

“What we’re doing is we’re shining a light on the problem, we’re providing more access to seniors, we’re catalyzing some really important public-private partnerships, we’re collecting the data, and in order for us to be sustainable, and not depend on philanthropy, we’re going to have to change policy," Lyford explained.

It remains to be seen whether the government’s tight-fisted policy toward funding senior dental care will change.

In the meantime, patient Ron Hilton is just thankful that the Senior Dental Center exists.

The clinic is giving him a new set of front teeth.

“I’m on fixed income, you know, Social Security," Hilton said. "I don’t have thousands of dollars extra under the mattress, so this has really been great.”

Photo credit: Kris Arciaga

An unidentified patient waits to be seen at the Senior Dental Center, Feb. 15, 2017.

The nonprofit Oral Health America says more than 70 percent of seniors have gum disease. And about 25 percent of adults 60 and older no longer have any natural teeth.

The Senior Dental Center is trying to take bite of those numbers.


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