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Students give seniors something to grin about

Senior Dental Day removes barriers, provides free services

GRCC — With a toothbrush and teeth model, student Chyna Schut showed patient Mary Tucker how to properly brush her teeth and gums.

“Brushing the gums, as well as the teeth, helps stimulate blood flow and prevent gum disease,” said Chyna, who is a second year student in the Dental Hygiene Program.

Tucker expressed her gratitude for the cleaning and said the opportunity to receive free dental care from GRCC students was “amazing.” 

Like the 20 other patients served at Senior Dental Day, Tucker is a Kent County resident, at least 60 years old, who hasn’t seen a dentist in the past year. Thanks to grant funds from the Area Agency of Aging of West Michigan, students in GRCC’s Dental Assisting and Dental Hygiene programs worked alongside area dentists to provide free cleanings, X-rays, exams and referrals for seniors at GRCC’s Dental Clinic

The agency also assisted eligible patients with registration paperwork and transportation assistance for their appointment.

“We moved through the day like a well-oiled machine,” Chyna said. “It was nice having people from the Area Agency on Aging of Western Michigan here with us today.” 

As she prepares to graduate this spring, Chyna said Senior Dental Day gave her “senior-focused clinical experience.”

“We’re really lucky to be able to do this,” she said. 

From left, Second-year dental hygiene students Chyna Schut, left, and Renee Fugitt clean patient Mary Tucker’s teeth during GRCC’s Senior Dental Day

Community Experience

GRCC dental assistance and dental hygiene program Professor Christine Dobberstein was “glad to resurrect this event” after not hosting it in 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“This event introduces students to a volunteer opportunity and public health collaboration. They benefit by getting outside their comfort zones with a variety of patient experiences,” she said.

In her community dental health course, Dobberstein offers her students volunteer opportunities to work with underrepresented populations. Students do not receive any payment or course credit for their services, only practice hours towards the completion of their program. 

“Seniors have different dental needs and this program provides experience for management of patients, like if patients need a pillow in their chair or have dentures,” she said. “It’s really cool to see them interacting with students.” 

Outside of friends, family and classmates, Dobberstein said Dental Assisting students hadn’t had the chance to work on real patients at this point in their training. For those who had previously worked hours in the clinic, treating senior patients “may be a new experience for some students.” 

While observing her students, Colette Smiley, GRCC Dental Program instructor and dental director for Health Network of West Michigan,  explained barriers seniors experience when seeking dental care, such as lack of transportation. 

“We know seniors don’t have enough dental access,” said Smiley. “They receive little to no coverage when they apply to Medicare and our seniors reach a point where they don’t have the access they need.”  

With dental tools in her mouth, Tucker gave a thumbs up in agreement with Smiley’s statement. 

Smiley, who recognizes how well her name fits her profession, also chairs the Kent County Oral Health Coalition, a “convener of organizations and agencies to serve members of the West Michigan community.”

“After patients receive their cleaning, the coalition can refer them to next step services for dental care,” she said. 

These services include future cleanings, preliminary dental hygiene exams, X-rays, fluoride treatments and more. 

Outside of Senior Dental Day, GRCC’s Dental Clinic offers services throughout the year, including a review of medical and dental history, blood pressure screening, cleanings, preliminary dental hygiene exams, X-rays, fluoride treatments and dental health instruction.

From left, second-year dental hygiene students Nicole Gillmin and Anna Giangrande work on Pat Person’s teeth at GRCC’s Senior Dental Day
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Alexis Stark
Alexis Stark is a reporter, covering Caledonia, Kenowa Hills, Godfrey-Lee, Grand Rapids and is a roving reporter for GRCC, Wyoming, Kentwood and Byron Center. She grew up in metro Detroit and her journalism journey brought her west to Grand Rapids via Michigan State University where she covered features and campus news for The State News. She also co-authored three 100-question guides to increase understanding and awareness of various human identities, through the MSU School of Journalism. Following graduation, she worked as a beat reporter for The Ann Arbor News - covering stories on education, community, prison arts and poetry.  Following a stint as a copywriter for a Grand Rapids area PR firm, she transitioned from communications to freelance writing and reporting for SNN.  Read Alexis' full bio

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