Caring for Our Greatest Generation
Michelle Noblet-Vacha sought to serve an underserved population
Patients may spend their lifetime caring for their teeth, doing everything right. But with the challenges of living on fixed incomes and the difficulties of disease, elderly patients may find that oral healthcare has become an afterthought. And all too soon, the years of oral care fall away into disease and neglect. Dental hygienist Michelle Noblet-Vacha wanted to change all that.
“These people in their 80s and 90s are the ones who grew up with the dental hygiene profession and have retained their teeth,” she says. “As a professional, to see all this disease and neglect, it wasn’t right. It goes against everything we strive for in our profession.”
So she started a nonprofit organization called Senior Mobile Dental and was recently recognized by the American Dental Hygienists Association, which said she “represents the face of a new generation of hygienists entering a new century of existence.”
“While living in the retirement community of Prescott, Arizona, I saw the difficulties seniors faced in transporting to a dental office—being left there hours before and after appointments, let alone the financial limitations they had in affording the care,” she says. She spent two decades in private practice as a dental hygienist seeing these issues firsthand. Traditional dental practices were challenged with treating these older patients who often were unable to afford the care and more challenging to treat.
She tried to start a program in Arizona, but was limited in how she as a dental hygienist could provide care. So when Noblet-Vacha moved to Colorado Springs, Colorado and saw the same problems, she knew she had to do something. Colorado’s laws were different—dental hygienists were allowed to practice outside the dental office. This meant she could do something.
In 2007, she started the nonprofit organization Senior Mobile Dental. She now had access to help serve this underserved population. Her organization could help nurses in long-term facilities by addressing dental compliance directly in the facilities, providing educational in-service training to staff, and offering an in-house dental hygiene clinic.
The nonprofit organization received grant funding and support to help those who had no financial resources. But still, there were more obstacles. “I never expected the hurdles to overcome in educating the public and policymakers that seniors were in as much of an oral health crisis as children,” she says.
In its first year, Senior Mobile Clinic provided prophylaxis, inspection, varnish, and referrals to 70 seniors. Now, it serves more than 2000 seniors in Colorado. Noblet-Vacha has won recognition from American Dental Association and the Dental Trade Alliance Foundation and has received $400,000 in grants and awards.
Some funding was awarded specifically for “Teledentistry” through which patients can receive remote access to high-quality dental care. “We had such difficulty getting the dental needs of these nursing home residents met. Many residents were too frail to leave the facility. So I wanted to be able to take portable x-rays and intra-oral photos and be able to transmit them to the dentist to eliminate at least one trip to the office, and have their treatment planned ahead of time. I received the funding to purchase the equipment from the Dental Trade Alliance Foundation,” she says. “I get a kick every time a senior is amazed at what we do.”
Noblet-Vacha is working hard to expand Senior Mobile Clinic’s reach and services. “Most of my time is now spent running this organization and transitioning it from a dental hygiene-based program into a full-service dental program. Along with our hygienists, we have hired dentists, dental assistants, denture technicians, and office staff.
Despite the grants that she wins and the success that the organization has had, she reminds herself of something basic: “Being able to provide the needed care, getting a painful tooth extracted, giving a smile back to someone who lost it because of finances is the biggest accomplishment of all. To be be recognized and accepted by my peers, that we are doing the right thing, and advancing the boundaries of hygiene and dentistry and bringing care to a population who is such desperate need fills my tank. These are the most gracious, appreciative people you will ever meet.”