If you’re someone who hates going to the dentist, then you’re in good company. According to some estimates, nearly 60 percent of Americans are anxious and fear going to the dentist. Regular dental hygiene and visits to the dentist, however, are essential for good oral health and ultimately preventing painful and expensive oral conditions.
For many adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities (I/DD) fear and anxiety are not the only barriers to maintaining good oral health. Limited communication skills and physical, emotional and behavioral challenges, as well as restricted access to dental care can make maintaining proper dental hygiene difficult, and thus putting adults with I/DD at greater risk of tooth decay and gum disease.
Penn-Mar Direct Support Professional (DSP) Lisa Evans has been with the nonprofit for a little more than four years working in Personal Supports. Last year she was accepted into Penn-Mar’s Career Ladders program, a career development and credentialing program, launched in the fall of 2016 in partnership with the National Alliance of Direct Support Professionals. The program was established in an effort to recognize the vital work of Penn-Mar’s DSPs, address the challenges within a care system plagued with low wages and high turnover, and improve its employee recruitment and retention efforts.
As part of Career Ladders all applicants must prepare a portfolio, in addition to a rigorous amount of work in training and practicums. As Lisa explained, one of the competencies for the portfolio had to do with health and wellness. Since working in Personal Supports involves having goals for each of the individuals she works with, Lisa saw an opportunity for one of her individuals, Chris Wheeler, to address his fear and anxiety about dental hygiene, which led her to the Byrnes Health Education Center (BHEC) in York, Pa.
“One of Chris’ goals is health and wellness, and we decided to focus on dental health,” said Lisa. “I contacted BHEC regarding its dental health program ‘Great Whites’ and asked a lot of questions. I learned of the costs involved, and that the program is set up for large groups of people. I was originally only interested in the program for Chris, and maybe one or two other individuals who would want to tag along.”
Needless to say, Lisa was a little dismayed and put the effort on hold, but two weeks later, out of the blue, she received a call from BHEC’s president and CEO Anne E. Bahn, who offered her a grant to cover the cost of a dental health class for a group of 25 Penn-Mar individuals.
“I was shocked and delighted,” said Lisa “I think they were impressed with our keen interest and purpose for the program for our individuals.”
Knowing there were a number of people in Penn-Mar’s Day Program who would benefit from the class, Lisa reached out to a colleague, Community Learning Coordinator Mark Rivera-Junkins, who in turn connected with Day Program Instructional Supports Coordinator Adrienne Harrington. Adrienne selected 23 individuals to attend the class at BHEC.
In preparation for the class, all the participants sat down for a pre-program lesson that was contained in an educational packet sent by BHEC. The hour-long class was held at the end of May and each participant was provided with a model of the mouth, toothbrush, and flosser.
“The instructor was very animated and got everyone participating,” said Lisa. “She demonstrated proper brushing techniques, healthy food for your teeth, and really addressed the issue of dental anxiety and the importance of dental health. It’s a great program – very interesting and thorough.”
Lisa pointed out that many individuals are capable of maintaining proper dental hygiene, but that they just need daily reminders, and positive reinforcement. The goal is to help them attain independence according to their ability.
“I’m so grateful to BHEC for giving our folks an opportunity to learn about dental health, and help them take steps to overcoming the fear and anxiety many of them experience, and to greater independence.”