Dental clinics a real deal for city's seniors

BARBARA COTTER Updated: November 21, 2012 at 12:00 am • Published: November 21, 2012

Short on money and busy raising her biological children, adopted children and even her grandkids, Antoinette McCoy skipped routine dental care for decades.

“I haven’t had my teeth cleaned in 42 years. Routine cleanings are not in the budget,” says McCoy, who ended up having to get several teeth pulled over the years.

So the 60-year-old woman was overjoyed when a friend told her about a free dental clinic for low-income seniors that started Nov. 5 and will be held the first Monday of every month, for at least six months, at Colorado Springs Fire Station 8. McCoy received a partial cleaning, got a count of how many teeth she’s lost, and made arrangements for a follow-up visit next month with Senior Mobile Dental, the Colorado Springs nonprofit that operates the clinic.

“It’s a blessing,” McCoy says. “They’re saving some of what teeth I have left.”

The free clinic is new territory for Senior Mobile Dental, which began offering basic dental services, such as cleanings and screenings, in 2007. Most of its work has taken place at local nursing homes, treating a population that is not mobile and often difficult to roust from familiar surroundings. It also operates a similar dental clinic at the Colorado Springs Senior Center, but patients are charged on a sliding scale.

For the most part, says founder and Executive Director Michelle Vacha, Senior Mobile Dental has been living on the edge financially, subsisting on its nursing-home work, service fees and a few grants. This year, however, the nonprofit has hit the jackpot.

The free clinic was made possible by a $10,000 grant from the Older Americans Act and another $10,000 from the Myron Stratton Home Grants Program. The Dental Trade Alliance Foundation awarded a $25,000 grant so Senior Mobile Dental could implement a teledentistry program for nursing home residents in rural areas.

Then, a few weeks ago, Vacha learned that Senior Mobile Dental was approved for a $347,000 grant through the Old Age Pension program to take its services to areas of Colorado where dental care is scarce.

“For years, we struggled, and all within a few months, we’ve received all this funding,” Vacha says.

Although its financial picture has brightened, Senior Mobile Dental still has a difficult time finding dentists who will volunteer or work for less than they can charge in their private practices for work that is beyond Senior Mobile Dental’s scope. The $347,000 grant may help, but it only goes through July 1.

“It will at least allow for restorative care, and this is where we’ll be able to help pay dentists for their needed work,” Vacha says.

And while it sounds like a lot of money, she says the costs of traveling to remote areas of Colorado will take a big chunk of the grant and barely cover expenses.

No matter. Vacha is committed to doing all she can to provide good dental care for seniors — especially those living on the financial edge. It’s why she started the nonprofit in the first place.

“I just saw how difficult it is for seniors to get to the dental office,” she says. “It just broke my heart.”

Some of the seniors she serves have struggled with financial issues for much of their lives, and even if they’re on Medicaid, it can be difficult to find a dentist who accepts it.

Other seniors had dental coverage when they worked, but when they retired and ended up on a fixed income, dental care fell lower on their list of priorities.

“They have to decide: Do I pay for utilities or food? Dental falls to the wayside,” Vacha says. “It’s upsetting to me.”

To start Senior Mobile Dental, Vacha and her husband took out a second mortgage on their home to buy the dental chairs and tools and hire hygienists. The operation now has five paid employees — three hygienists, a dental assistant and a paid equipment specialist.

Its patient load has also grown exponentially, going from 70 in 2008 to 756 last year.

With a small expansion into Pueblo and the Aspen Valley area earlier this year, Senior Mobile Dental already had treated 724 patients at the end of October, and Vacha believes it will go up even more with the newest grant.

The nursing home clients have been the nonprofit’s bread and butter, earning praise from administrators at the facilities and numerous awards from national dental and hygienist associations.

“I think it’s excellent,” says Kim Butler, executive director of the Medalion Retirement Community. “I think the biggest thing is, a lot of our residents are not in a condition to get out into a dental office and sit in a dental chair. It means transferring  them from a wheelchair to a dental chair, and many who have dementia can become confused and scared, so bringing dental services into their own home, where it’s comfortable to them, we can work with their challenges and give individualized care.”

The free clinic at the fire station is a different model; patients have to come to the site, which was chosen for its proximity to low-income neighborhoods, and they have to be at least age 60 and low-income. McCoy, who went decades without a cleaning, doesn’t drive, but a friend took her there, and she was grateful for the opportunity to finally get a check-up and cleaning.

“The opportunity came, and I said ‘Wow, I need this,” McCoy says. “It’s a wonderful organization.”

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