A public statement from the Gary and Mary West Senior Dental center says they have temporarily closed the low-income dental clinic that serves seniors across San Diego county but are offering teledentistry and are in the process of preparing 5,000 home care oral hygiene kits to be distributed through delivery by Serving Seniors.
However, a talk with their CEO and Dental Director, Dr. Karen Becerra reveals a grim picture that goes beyond dropping off hygiene kits for seniors isolating at home through the COVID-19 pandemic and into the struggle to care for an underserved population.
“We have 1,300 patients on record and our approach is whole person: medical, social, mental and dental. Under normal circumstances, we work with our partners to make sure all those are addressed. In this pandemic, we’ve had to adjust. Our patients know us and they’re asking us what to do about medication, about pain, about access to food,” Becerra said.
The dentist quickly lists off some of the items in the kits that are being delivered to seniors: toothpaste, toothbrush, mouth rinse, dental floss, soap and other health care supplies, then says her biggest challenge as a health care provider right now is her struggle to teach people that everything is connected to oral health.
“If you don’t take care of what is happening in your mouth things can get bad very quickly— I have an 80-year old patient, diabetic, with an infection. We are just buying time with antibiotics before she is seen in person and the tooth is extracted with a possible root canal. We may have bought her three or four weeks of being able to stay at home,” Becerra said.
She says the fact that the patient can remain at home is a win and provides background for her concern: the average income of the senior citizens they treat at the low-income clinic is $800 a month and she says many of her patients are on the brink of homelessness.
“Here in San Diego, that isn’t that much. We hear from seniors everywhere— last week I spoke to one who was in tears. ‘With a limited income, where do I go and what do I do now?’ That was my hardest call last week. Her isolation, her anxiety: I have to take those calls and not break down,” Becerra said. Becerra also says many of her clients and, she suspects, seniors in general do not rely on the internet as frequently as younger generations and therefore might not be aware of resources that are out there.
“Many of the seniors I know do not have home internet, they often rely on phone calls for information. That adds to the struggle. The day that broke my heart was the Friday that it was raining— I saw senior citizens lined up in the rain, waiting for food,” Becerra said.
The dentist says the clinic isn’t equipped to provide food but employees have a list of sources where they can refer patients in need.
“We try to make the conversation pleasant, we try to make sure they know there is someone who cares for them,” Becerra said.
Still, she says, the safety net only has so much capacity.
The clinic is currently partnering with dentists for supplies to fill the home hygiene kits. Becerra said some of the kits have already been delivered to South Bay, but with clients stretching from Alpine to El Cajon to Oceanside, there is a huge need for supplies so seniors can stay home in isolation unless they absolutely have to see a dentist in person.
“Our goal is to raise funds for 5,000 home delivery kits so seniors can stay in place. If I could get individuals in our community or corporations to help, whether it is with money or a large donation of supplies it would show that we’re in it together,” Becerra said.
The Gary and Mary West foundation will match donations up to a total of $10,000.
Becerra says these are challenging times and so many are struggling but she feels blessed to help people. Although the clinic has had to make some adjustments, Becerra said she has seen excellent teamwork, that they all know the seniors need their help.
“I feel so blessed to help people regain hope, what we’re doing here in San Diego is amazing,” Becerra said.
“Only when the community comes together can we turn something negative into something positive. The only thing we can do is continue doing what we know is right.”