Putting Smiles on the Faces of Low-Income Seniors

Putting Smiles on the Faces of Low-Income Seniors

Anthony Arriaga, 61, had not visited a dentist for more than a decade.

“I honestly didn’t have the money and didn’t think it was possible,” he said.

That was until Arriaga was referred to the Gary & Mary West Senior Dental Center in downtown San Diego. Almost immediately, Arriaga saw a prosthodontist and was fitted with new dentures to replace an outdated pair that no longer fit.

“They took care of me. They made sure I was safe,” Arriaga said. “I feel like I’m part of the family, part of the team.”

Arriaga was among the hundreds of seniors who benefitted from a $46,000 grant provided by The San Diego Foundation-administered San Diego COVID-19 Community Response Fund. The grant was critical in retaining staff and purchasing teledentistry software and two laptops needed to continue operations. Funding also helped cover heightened safety protocols that included personal protective equipment for those working at the center.

Even amid the pandemic, the Senior Dental Center was able to provide 94 teledentistry visits and serve 638 individuals who engaged in 2,254 in-person visits at dental offices in downtown San Diego and San Marcos during 2020. More than 860 phone consultations were completed, and the center also referred 53 patients to community clinics and specialists for immediate care.

“This grant was vital in helping us to bring staff back online and allowed us to make a seamless transition to restoring services and implementing teledentistry services,” said Senior Dental Center Program Manager Ayrielle Franco. “It was pivotal in providing our model of holistic care to ensure seniors’ needs were being addressed during a very difficult and challenging time.”

Patients have resoundingly expressed their gratitude, emphasizing their comfort with being able to go to the dentist and feeling safe during the pandemic.

“With my age group and my secondary conditions, it was incredible to feel so comfortable getting care,” one patient shared. “When I went to the dental center, I was amazed at how safe and cared for and comfortable I felt.”

The 66-year-old San Diego man said he sought care after a toothache progressed to a bulge of swelling on the side of his face. A Senior Dental Center dentist immediately recognized that the patient may have been suffering from a facial abscess and prescribed antibiotics to treat the infection which would need to be resolved before dental treatment. That step alone saved the patient from an urgent care or emergency room visit.

The Senior Dental Center opened at the downtown Serving Seniors’ Gary and Mary West Senior Wellness Center in 2016. The San Marcos clinic opened in 2019 at the Gary and Mary West PACE. Both locations shut down in mid-March of 2020 as the pandemic quickly spread out of control. Services were transitioned online, but technology was limited to Zoom and FaceTime – until the San Diego COVID-19 Community Response Fund stepped in.

The San Diego COVID-19 Community Response Fund at The San Diego Foundation has raised $66 million to date and provided grants totaling approximately $58 million to more than 200 nonprofits since its inception. Nearly 8 in 10 people served through the fund live in poverty, and 56% of grantees were able to secure additional dollars thanks to their Community Response Fund grant.

The Senior Dental Center was hardly in a unique situation, as nearly 80 percent of dental practices in the United States were shut down last April because of the pandemic, according to an American Dental Association report. More than 85 percent of employee dentists were either not being paid or being paid only partially in early May of last year.

“Our goal is to keep patients out of the ER,” said Franco, who noted that dentists and other staff volunteered at vaccination sites throughout the region.

“How the community pulled together through all this was incredible and inspiring,” Franco shared. “We were flabbergasted by the outpouring of support, which really showed how much San Diego cares about its seniors. And we are grateful for The San Diego Foundation. They made the process so easy and accommodating.” Learn more about the impact of the San Diego COVID-19 Community Response Fund today.