Dental hygienist Jaimee Shropshire (left) is ready to check York General Willow Brook assisted living resident Imo Richardson’s teeth. Shropsire is participating in a special oral health outreach program between Willow Brook and Four Corners Health Department.

YORK — Much of rural America is facing an oral health crisis among seniors; however, York General and Four Corners Health Department are utilizing an innovative program to bring oral health services to York General’s Willow Brook assisted living.

The three-year-old partnership is so unique that Willow Brook had some special visitors come to the facility to see the program in action: Dr. Charles F. Craft, Nebraska State Dental Director for the Office of Oral Health and Dentistry at the DHHS Department of Health and Human Services; and Rear Admiral Timothy Ricks, United States Assistant Surgeon General.

According to the 2016 Nebraska State Oral Health Assessment, half of the State of Nebraska is facing a shortage in oral care services; in fact, 20 counties lack a full-time dentist at all.

In Nebraska, about 14% of our population – more than 250,000 people -- are senior citizens. That number is expected to increase by about 75,000 this decade, according to the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services.

“Elder oral health is very important to us,” Ricks said. “We have to put emphasis on preventing disease and having adults keep their teeth as long as they can.”

Both Craft and Ricks said oral health goes beyond our mouths. “Taking care of your teeth really makes a difference in your overall health,” Ricks said. Periodontal (gum disease) infections are chronic inflammatory diseases, and linked to health risks like diabetes, cardiovascular disease, respiratory illness – even mental health.

Laura McDougall, Executive Director of Four Corners Health Department said their dental outreach and referrals are spanning the counties they serve: Polk, Butler, York and Seward. She said Willow Brook has been particularly enthusiastic to have Four Corners’ help. “They have been a great partner for us,” McDougall said.

Willow Brook administrator Michelle Broekemier said residents were a bit apprehensive about the efforts at first. “It started out slow,” she said. “It has grown every year.”

There are a handful of other organizations in Nebraska who have embraced similar programs, but Craft said York’s program is exceptional.

“This is a shining example of the potential that this not only works here, but could work across the state.”

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