School News Network feature: GRCC Dental students learn new skills while helping senior citizens get care they need

Grand Rapids Community College student Chyna Schut showing patient Mary Tucker how to properly brush her teeth and gums

With a toothbrush and teeth model, Grand Rapids Community College 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 Schut, 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. Using support from the Area Agency on 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,” Schut 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, Schut said Senior Dental Day gave her “senior-focused clinical experience.”

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

Community Experience

GRCC Dental Assistant 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 students volunteer opportunities 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 Assistant students have not 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,” Smiley said. “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.

This story was reported and photographed by Alexis Stark of the School News Network.

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