Gary and Mary West Senior Dental Center Works to Meet Overwhelming Demand for Oral Health Services

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SAN DIEGO, Nov. 16, 2017 — In its first year of operation, the Gary and Mary West Senior Dental Center, a nonprofit community dental center based in San Diego, reports high demand from area low income seniors for the treatment of severe dental problems, many of which have been left unaddressed for years, even decades.

“It's overwhelming in terms of the numbers of seniors who need our help and the severity of the problems they are facing,” said Shelley Lyford, president and CEO of West Health and the Gary and Mary West Foundation, and chair of the Senior Dental Center's board of directors. “Before the Senior Dental Center, these seniors had little or no access to high quality and affordable dental care. It is a major public health issue here in San Diego and across the nation, and unfortunately, it is not going away.”

In its first year, the Senior Dental Center (see videos) has had more than 4,200 patient visits with its dentists treating problems such as major tooth decay and oral pain, missing teeth and gum disease. Denti-Cal is accepted, but the state funded plan only covers a fraction of the critical services provided. Seniors not enrolled in Denti-Cal pay what they can afford.

Alex Maddalena, 79, had not seen a dentist for five years before he arrived at the Senior Dental Center. His teeth were so bad, it hurt to chew. He also had severe gum disease, cavities, and three teeth that needed to be extracted.

Maddalena is like many patients whose dental problems go unchecked for years and get progressively worse because they cannot afford to see a dentist. Several visits, multiple deep cleanings and fillings, and a set of partial dentures later, Maddalena, a former hairdresser, says he feels great and now has something really to smile about – he can chew, he's no longer in pain and he has a healthy mouth.

“These people are lifesavers,” Maddalena told the New York Times.

“We are changing lives, but the public's help is needed to continue to meet the growing demand and provide the care our seniors so desperately need and cannot afford,” said Karen Becerra, DDS, MPH, CEO and dental director of the Gary and Mary West Senior Dental Center.

According to San Diego County's 2012 Survey of Older Americans, not being able to afford dental care was their greatest concern among eight health-related issues.

While 81 percent of the 600 patients the Senior Dental Center has treated are eligible for Denti-Cal, the dental program within California's Medicaid (Medi-Cal) program, reimbursements are below cost for almost all procedures and not all services are covered. Medicare, the nation's largest health insurer for seniors, does not cover routine dental care, nor is dental generally covered for Veterans, so many seniors go without dental treatment. Philanthropy is helping to fill the gaps, but more financial support is needed to meet this growing demand.

How You Can Help
Philanthropists Gary and Mary West donated $2 million to start and operate the Senior Dental Center and have offered up to an additional $250,000 through a matching grant program to help sustain it. To make a tax-deductible donation to seniors in need of oral healthcare, visit

Other funders include the County of San Diego Neighborhood Reinvestment Program, the California Wellness Foundation, the San Diego Dental Health Foundation, the Dental Trade Alliance Foundation, the Rotary Club of San Diego Downtown Breakfast and Rotary District 5340 and the Academy of Dentistry International.

“We are pleased to support the Senior Dental Center because we recognize the huge unmet need for dental care among our seniors who are especially vulnerable to significant health consequences of poor oral health,” said Dr. Lester Machado, president of the San Diego Dental Health Foundation. “The Senior Dental Center is a model program to provide affordable, accessible high-quality care for our vulnerable seniors.”

An Integrated Model of Care
The 1,400-square foot Senior Dental Center (see photos) is located inside Serving Seniors' Gary and Mary West Senior Wellness Center, where seniors not only have access to dental care, but also to a suite of nutrition, care management, housing and social services, creating a one-of-a-kind, integrated community-based system of care.

The Gary and Mary West Health Institute, an applied medical research organization, continues to study the outcomes of the Senior Dental Center's integrated approach to care to see how improved dental health can impact overall health. They are also researching the value of coverage and adequate payment for dental services and bridging the divide between oral healthcare and medical care.

Please click here to download a report on the Senior Dental Center's first year of operation.

About the Gary and Mary West Senior Dental Center
The nonprofit Gary and Mary West Senior Dental Center, through its innovative care model, offers high-quality, affordable oral healthcare with comprehensive education, health and wellness services at Serving Seniors' Gary and Mary West Senior Wellness Center in downtown San Diego to serve low-income seniors. For more information and to donate, visit

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Photo credit: John Aristizabal

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Brad Bennett

Brad Bennett

Brad grew up in a small town in northern Iowa. He studied chemistry in college, graduated, and married his wife one month later. They were then blessed with two baby boys within the first four years of marriage. Having babies gave their family a desire to return to the old paths – to nourish their family with traditional, homegrown foods; rid their home of toxic chemicals and petroleum products; and give their boys a chance to know a simple, sustainable way of life. They are currently building a homestead from scratch on two little acres in central Texas. There’s a lot to be done to become somewhat self-sufficient, but they are debt-free and get to spend their days living this simple, good life together with their five young children.
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