Campus & Community

Dental Hygiene students help in first oral health screening for older adults

Poor oral health severely impacts overall health, and no population is more vulnerable than older adults, especially those on a fixed income. They cut back on dental appointments or don’t even have a dentist. Many with dentures wrongly believe that they don’t need a dentist.

Florida is focused on improving oral health in older adults, and Palm Beach State College students are pitching in. Eight students in the College’s Dental Hygiene A.S. degree program participated in Florida’s first Older Adult Oral Health Surveillance Project, which concluded in June.

Dental Hygiene team at Mae Volen Senior Center
A PBSC team screened older adults for oral health issues at the Mae Volen Senior Center. From left: student Kira Filaski; screener and PBSC Dental Hygiene instructor Michelle Ryan, CRDH, M.Ed.; student Tiffany Clarke; and Sue Kassoff-Correia, CRDH, B.S., who served as lead screener.

Over the past six months, dental hygienists were deployed at 36 senior centers across Florida to conduct screenings on older adults with the dual purpose of collecting data and promoting oral health. The PBSC team was led by Sue Kassoff-Correia and Michelle Ryan. Both are registered dental hygienists and PBSC graduates, with Ryan also serving as an instructor in the Dental Hygiene program.

“The students gained exposure to and an appreciation for older adults in our community and their oral health care needs,” says Kassoff-Correia. “As we did the screenings, a student sat next to us and recorded our findings: the number of teeth we found, whether the person wears dentures, are they in pain, is there decay, are there root fragments or any soft tissue lesions? We looked very carefully at every single corner of the mouth and under the tongue. It wasn’t just a quick peak, and the students were a big help, a wonderful support.”

Dental Hygiene students at Mid-County Senior Center
PBSC Dental Hygiene students (from left) Taylor Peirce, Natacha Peterkin and Dawn Smith volunteered for the Older Adult Oral Health Surveillance Project at the Mid-County Senior Center.

Dawn Smith, who is halfway through the two-year Dental Hygiene program, volunteered at Mid-County Senior Center in Lake Worth. “I felt like I learned a lot. When my instructor, Ms. Ryan, would see something out of the norm, she would say ‘come over here, look at this.’ I probably saw at least 50 mouths.”

In fact, the group saw about 80 people in total, ranging in age from 62 to mid-90s. While some were in good shape, many were told to see their dentist in the near future, or in a few cases, immediately. Those without a dentist were given information on low-cost/no-cost clinics.

The students also educated participants on the importance of brushing, flossing and rinsing or taking care of their dentures. All received a dental goodie bag tailored to their needs.

Tiffany Clarke, another student, spent the day at the Mae Volen Senior Center in Boca Raton. “It is a little challenging working with that age group, and I think a lot of us who volunteered were a little taken aback by it. The experience of dealing with them really opened my eyes to being more patient.”

With support from the Centers for Disease Control and other federal entities, states nationwide are paying greater attention to oral health. Florida’s Older Adult Oral Health Surveillance Project is just one component of statewide efforts to improve oral health, which go back to the 2004 State Oral Health Improvement Plan. The Florida Department of Health partnered with the Florida Dental Hygiene Association on the $45,000 surveillance project, funded through a grant from the federal Health Resources and Services Administration. The collected data went to Tallahassee, where it will inform legislation and funding. A project report is due out in August.

And the work is paying off. Florida earned the seventh highest ranking in the 2016 “State of Decay” report by Oral Health America, a state-by-state analysis of the oral health of older Americans.

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