Tears intermingled with smiles at the New Hanover County Senior Resource Center during a Nov. 15 event to celebrate the county’s Older Adult Dental Program. For some patients of the free program, the ability to flash a smile in front of cameras isn’t something they take for granted after years of hiding their teeth.
Robyn Gantt held the hand of dentist Roberta Blazzio, both women tearing up, as Gantt shared her experience. Gantt is one of more than 200 patients who have utilized free dental services since the county-funded program launched in July of this year.
She said she stopped smiling after her teeth began cracking and falling out in 2017. She researched options for dental care, but none of them were within her means. After years of struggling with her teeth, she described the pandemic as a reprieve.
“It was kind of like a win-win for me because I could put on a mask. I could hide this from everyone,” Gantt said. “I hadn’t smiled in a while.”
Sherry Redman, dental hygienist with the program, said tears are a daily part of the job.
“I use a lot of Kleenexes here,” she said. “It’s the most heartwarming practice I’ve ever been in. Every day, we get to help people and before I even bring them back, they’re thanking me.”
Gantt’s testimonial underscores the importance of dental care for older adults, according to Amber Smith, director of the senior center.
“When we look at dental health care and being able to provide that service, it really impacts the whole person. It’s not just the mouth. It’s the entire body, from physical to mental,” Smith said.
Redman also emphasized that the program ensures more than just oral health for participants. A medical screening is required before a patient’s first dental appointment, which she said recently led to diagnosis and treatment of hepatitis C for one patient. Additionally, she noted that active infections in the mouth can exacerbate chronic diseases common among older adults.
Unresolved dental issues can also be an impediment to proper nutrition for older adults. Gantt said she was unable to eat meat, peanuts and other foods for years.
Officials touted the program as the only one of its kind in the state. Comprehensive dental services are provided for adults ages 55 and older who lack dental insurance, which is not included in government-provided Medicare. Services offered through the Older Adult Dental Program are available at the North Carolina-based Access Dental Care at the Senior Resource Center and the county’s Health and Human Services facility in addition to other locations. Common services include dental exams, cleanings, X-rays, extractions, select root canals and dentures.
All services, available by appointment only, are completely free to patients due to ongoing support from New Hanover County. After an initial investment of nearly $150,000 in December 2021 to get the program started, commissioners approved $729,884 to fund the program in their current budget for fiscal year 2023.
Franz Demeza said it was “like heaven” when he got a call confirming he was eligible to receive free dental care through the program. When he arrived for his first appointment, he said the experience exceeded his expectations.
“The way they welcome you, it’s like you’re paying big money,” he said. “And at the end, to find that you don’t pay a dime.”
To qualify, patients must show proof of residency in New Hanover County as well as an income below 200% of the federal poverty level. Smith said the county was careful to set an income level inclusive of people who might not otherwise be able to afford continuing dental care or might only prioritize dental emergencies when considering the cost of care on a fixed income.
“It was important to us to make sure that this program wasn’t just about an episodic, one-time issue – you need, say, a tooth pulled – that this was beyond that. This is truly comprehensive dental care. It’s ongoing dental care, whether that’s just getting your teeth cleaned twice a year,” Smith said.
Interested residents can apply for the program here
, or via paper applications available at the Senior Resource Center at 2222 College Road and the county’s Health and Human Services facility at 1610 Greenfield St.
Smith encouraged anyone who suspects that they could be eligible to apply. “I would really like for people to take advantage of it so we can provide that level of care for individuals,” she said.
Correction: This version corrects the amount of money allocated to the dental program by the New Hanover County Commissioners in the budget for fiscal year 2023.