Dental hygiene students providing no-cost dental care to older adults

Students are gaining valuable experience through a unique partnership between UNE and Westbrook Housing Authority

A patient, seated in a dentist chair, is consulted by students
A resident of Westbrook Housing and patient of UNE's Wellness Center receives instructions on proper teeth cleaning technique from UNE dental hygiene students.

Dental hygiene students at the University of New England are benefitting from a unique partnership between UNE’s Center for Excellence in Aging and Health and the Westbrook Housing Authority (WHA), as they provide weekly dental cleanings and consultations at no-cost to older residents.

The residents, all aged 55 and older, are also benefitting from the partnership. Dental hygiene students are currently performing teeth cleanings, fluoride services, and oral exams, all for free, to those who live at any of WHA’s 15 properties. Students work from the UNE Wellness Center located at WHA’s Larrabee campus.

Free cleanings and other dental services are made possible this year by a generous grant from the Bingham Program.

The oral health treatments are part of a long-term, multi-phase student placement and research partnership serving seniors aging in place in affordable housing. Soon, students from UNE’s Physical Therapy, Occupational Therapy, Osteopathic Medicine, Pharmacy, and Social Work programs will also conduct faculty-supervised visits with senior residents at the Wellness Center’s rehabilitation space and consultation areas.

Tom Meuser, Ph.D., director of the Center for Excellence in Aging and Health, explained that dental care was already difficult for older adults to find and afford before the COVID-19 pandemic. The pandemic only worsened the trend, he said.

“This partnership is a marriage of needs: the need for accessible care and the need for student training and education,” Meuser remarked.

Over 50 students are involved in multiple capacities at the Wellness Center, Meuser said, and there are over 100 residents receiving services or on wait lists for future efforts. Currently, the oral health space — where, on Thursdays, students perform two dental consultations — is booked through the end of November.

“This is a tremendous example of service learning in action,” Meuser said.

Marji Harmer-Beem, RDH, M.S., director of the Dental Hygiene program at UNE, said collaborations such as the one with WHA offer added value for students in the program because of the focus on experiential learning.

“Many older adults do not have access to a dental home. UNE Dental Hygiene, in collaboration with WHA and other health professions, are providing preventive services to bring awareness to the needs of this very special population,” Harmer-Beem said. “The University is committed to partnerships that serve the community and offer our students real life experiences.”