photo: John Quinn

Case Western Reserve's traveling dental van.

In the five years since Anita Stone last saw a dentist, she lost teeth and struggled to chew food. But recently, dentists came to her, traveling to a suburban Cleveland senior citizen health center, where they provided the 74-year-old retiree with a cleaning, X-rays and hope for a less painful future—all within a customized van that is the first of its kind in Northeast Ohio.

The "Lifelong Smiles" van is part of a new initiative at the Case Western Reserve School of Dental Medicine. Its goal is to train dental students to treat older patients and, at the same time, offer needed services to residents of Cleveland-area nursing and assisted-living facilities.

"Everything done in a dental office, we can do in the van," said Nicole Harris, DDS, MPH (DEN '01), a visiting assistant professor in the school's Department of Community Dentistry and co-director of its new Geriatric Dental Program.

That program aims to help meet the needs of an aging population. The nation's senior population—ages 65 and older—is expected to surpass 72 million by 2030, according to federal estimates. That's more than double the number from 2000.

"We are entering uncharted territory: People are living longer, their dental needs require special skills and knowledge," said James Lalumandier, DDS, MPH, chair of the Department of Community Dentistry and the person who drove creation of the geriatric program and accompanying outreach van. "As dental providers, we are changing with the times."

photo: John Quinn

From left: Suparna Mahalaha and Nicole Harris co-direct the university's new Geriatric Dental Program and treat elderly patients inside this remodled van.

The dental school launched the program in January, hiring Harris and Suparna Argekar Mahalaha, DDS, MPH (CWR '98, DEN '01, GRS '04, public health), as codirectors. They're now teaching third-year students to assess and treat older patients, and are directing clinical rotations on the van for fourth-year students. The new program also includes interdisciplinary training, in which dental students assess patients alongside students from other fields including medicine, nursing and social work. Completing the program is a new requirement for the dental school's students.

"We are training our students to treat a population that often does not receive adequate dental care," Mahalaha said.

At the senior center where Stone received her care, some people haven't seen a dentist in a decade, explained Sheriece Stewart, a clinic manager with McGregor, a nonprofit operator of Clevelandarea nursing homes and centers. A related grant-making organization, the McGregor Foundation, contributed $100,000 to outfit the van with dental equipment.

The 38-foot van is equipped with two dental areas, known as operatories, for oral exams, cleanings, fillings, extractions, denture fittings and other services. In addition, two mobile dental chairs can be set up within a facility to serve more patients.

The Ohio Department of Health provided the vehicle—which it no longer needed—for free after reviewing competing proposals from across the state. Eventually, program leaders envision the van visiting multiple facilities weekly, and they are recruiting active and retired dentists to volunteer their services.

For her part, Stone is excited about the service and the opportunities it allows. "I can't wait to eat steak again," she said.