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Uniting to tackle Santa Cruz County's senior oral health crisis: A Q&A with our California coalition partners

By Kenzie Ferguson, Vice President of Foundation and Corporate Social Responsibility for Delta Dental of California

As we approach the one-year anniversary of the Delta Dental Community Care Foundation’s groundbreaking, multi-year Senior Oral Health Coalition Program announcement, I’m excited to welcome Dientes Community Dental Care (Dientes) and Salud Para La Gente (Salud) as the newest members of our Senior Oral Health Coalition.

These two incredible community health organizations provide comprehensive dental and health care services to diverse, underserved populations in Santa Cruz County, California. They join inaugural Washington, D.C. coalition members, Howard University College of Dentistry and Mary’s Center, to establish transformative programs that focus on creating greater access to oral health care and improving the lives and wellbeing of older adults, especially those of color. The timing could not be better since an estimated 5.2 million Californians, representing 14 percent of the state population, lack dental benefits, according to recent data from the National Association of Dental Plans.

I recently spoke with Salud’s Dental Director Sung Sohn, DDS and Associate Family Dental Director, Svetlana Mezentsev, DDS and Dientes’ CEO Laura Marcus and EVP of Operations Sepideh Taghvaei, DDS to discuss Santa Cruz County’s senior oral health crisis and how the coalition will address access challenges.

1. What excites you about being chosen as our California Senior Health Coalition partners?

Sohn (Salud): Older adults are a very vulnerable population. Many in our community don't have dental care but need access to comprehensive exams and treatment. It's great to be part of a program that helps resolve this issue. Older adults are important members of our society, and they need equal care.

Mezentsev (Salud): I’d like to quote the great Mahatma Gandhi who said that the true measure of any society can be found in how it treats its most vulnerable, which includes our seniors. I feel that in the minds of some older adults, it's sort of the norm that, as you age, you start losing teeth – but it should not be the norm. We should have our teeth for as long as we live.

Taghvaei (Dientes): What I’m excited about is the opportunity to collaborate with Salud and our other partners to address this serious problem in our community. I'm also excited to have a funder (Delta Dental Community Care Foundation) who is so innovative and open-minded about how we’re going to approach this problem. They know we have the expertise and the necessary tools, and they’re giving us the resources to tackle the problem.

Marcus (Dientes): I agree with Sepi. The approach Delta Dental is taking with this coalition model is really incredible. In this model, we all leave our individual egos and organizational goals at the door, so we can focus on the bigger picture and make lasting change happen at the systematic level. There are not a lot of philanthropic organizations who are willing to do that and this is really where the change will happen. So, we’re very grateful. As Sepi said, the innovation and creativity that’s possible with a partnership like this is just incredible.

2. What are the specific challenges that older individuals in your community currently face? Let’s discuss the distinctive issues and barriers that need to be tackled through the Senior Oral Health Coalition Program.

Sohn (Salud): Since Salud Para La Gente is a comprehensive health care clinic, medical providers will often send patients to us who can't eat because they don't have teeth. They're in pain, they've lost a lot of weight and they’re not getting the dental care they need. That's a serious issue. On top of that, they’re socially limited, more so than other members of society. When you see them and they don't have teeth and they can't smile, that limits their ability to engage in social activities even more. So, I think this shows that we really need to start taking care of our seniors and improve care for them.

Mezentsev (Salud): Cost is another barrier that older adults face in receiving proper care. Many seniors simply do not have any idea of where to go to have their dental needs met because a lot of private dentists do not have the capacity to see those who cannot pay for treatment, which can be very expensive.

Taghvaei (Dientes): In the last 14-plus years of seeing patients, I've come across so many seniors who are losing weight due to missing teeth; or those who are isolated and are not socializing because they're embarrassed about their smile; or seniors who are in pain and have ill-fitting dentures because they can't afford treatment. It's heartbreaking and it's a real problem. The cost of living in the Santa Cruz area is extremely high, many of our senior community members are on limited incomes and Medicare does not include dental coverage. Even for seniors who have Medi-Cal or Medicaid, there aren’t enough providers in our community who accept public health care coverage. It’s truly a challenge and we’re here to develop some solutions.

Marcus (Dientes): There are two distinct populations that are prevalent in our community: migrant farm workers and people experiencing homelessness. While you might not think of them as part of the senior population, the reality is most migrant farm workers are not necessarily insured. They haven't been able to get preventive care for their teeth over the years. Once they’re no longer able to work, they really need a lot of dental work. And the unhoused population is quite large in Santa Cruz County, where we have more than 2,500 individuals experiencing homelessness every day. There's a percentage who are seniors and they’re having a hard time accessing general health care and dental services. As both of our organizations specifically serve these populations, we think we are really well-placed to make an impact, particularly for these vulnerable groups.

3. Do you have a personal story relating to senior oral health you’d like to share?

Marcus (Dientes): For me, it really goes back to my grandmother. She was a wonderful, loving presence in my life, but she had a lot of health conditions and was a smoker for 50 years. She just really neglected her oral health. She died fairly young and wasn’t able to age with dignity because she was embarrassed by her smile. That is why this work is so important because we see people in these situations every day. The fact that we can help them feels like a gift I am passing along to my grandmother.

Sohn (Salud): My father didn’t have dental coverage. You get a sense of unfairness when other people are being taken care of, and yet seniors aren't. The frustration is seeing our patients, through neglect, coming in repeatedly for the same health issues. They’re so badly in need of comprehensive care.

Taghvaei (Dientes): My father recently went on retirement disability. He had to switch his insurance to Medicare and I had to help him navigate that system. He has a lot of health and dental problems, and it was hard for me to navigate the complications of Medicare enrollment, so I can’t imagine what that process would be like for older adults. That’s why this older patient population has a special place in my heart.

4. How will Salud and Dientes work together as part of the Senior Oral Health Coalition Program?

Sohn (Salud): By working together and sharing resources, we have an opportunity to double our strengths. In doing so, we can achieve a lot.

Taghvaei (Dientes): I strongly believe that we’re both going to leverage each other's strengths to benefit our communities and our senior population.

Marcus (Dientes): Dientes and Salud have actually worked together over the years. In fact, seven years ago we started an oral health access steering committee to focus on children's oral health and we have had a lot of success around it. I think it's part of why we were selected for the Senior Oral Health Coalition Program. We have shown that we can be successful working together and with others. We’re going to apply those same ideas and values to our work with seniors. I believe we have the right people at the table and will be inviting even more organizations who serve seniors to help us on this path. 

As the important efforts of our California and Washington, D.C. Senior Oral Health Coalition Program partners come into broader focus, we will provide updates about the beneficial impacts their programs are having on the lives and health of older adults.