Tzu Chi’s Dentists on Wheels Visits LA’s Graying Baby Boomers

Los Angeles, the city of Angels, is home to the Sunset Strip, the Lakers, and Hollywood.  It’s also home to an aging homeless and low-income population.

In a series on aging by KCRW called “Going Gray in LA,” it’s estimated that the County’s senior population will double- to make up almost a fifth of the total population- by 2031.  But, there’s more to these baby boomers than meets the eye.

KCRW’s Ruxandra Guidi and Bear Guerra suggest that roughly 200,000 older adults living in LA currently fall under the Federal Poverty Level and that “Latino, African-American, and Asian older adults who live alone or with only a spouse had the highest rates of being among the ‘hidden poor.’”  Number-wise, how do we know what hidden poverty means?

The Federal Poverty Level for 2018 rests at a collective household income of $25,100 for a family of 4, as per the Department of Health and Human Services.  That’s just $12,550 for two earners, or $6,275 of earnings divided amongst all four income contributors.  With California rent rising to some of the highest rates in the country, it’s no surprise then that many who fall below the poverty line may put health-related needs on the backburner.

These burdens are those that the Tzu Chi Dental Mobile Unit aims to relieve.

Knowing how critical dental health is, not only as the pathway to the rest of the body but, for the overall quality of life, the Tzu Chi Medical Foundation’s “Dentists on Wheels” program’s volunteer dentists, technicians, and staff aim to offer free dental services to vulnerable populations.  Those living in Lincoln Heights are among them.

David Fields from the Society of St. Vincent de Paul acknowledges the hardship of those in the neighborhood.

This is Lincoln Heights, which is one of the poorest neighborhoods in Los Angeles, and a lot of people don’t have medical coverage here, and this...satisfies a great need.

In 2017 alone, the “Dentists on Wheels” program served 3,209 patients- at no cost- in the state of California.  And, the services provided can be similar to those one may find at a private dental practice.

I used composite fillings and I filled all those broken bottom teeth, so by the time I finished, you really couldn’t tell they were broken.

Our patients, too, feel the impact of the quality care our volunteers do their best to provide.

The truth is, this is marvelous work, sent from the heavens. It’s incredible. And, the doctor who treated me has the hand of an angel. Seriously, thank you. It’s something I can’t explain. They’ve helped us immensely.

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Though quality care may be our most obvious provision, our dental mobile unit hopes to offer residents something more, too: hope.

There’s a lot of people, especially [the] homeless, who can’t get glasses or can’t get dental [work]. And when you’re on MediCal, or you’re on other programs, you need an address, and a lot of these people just don’t have that.

Ronald, an elder Los Angeles resident, struggle with disability.  He currently takes 36 medications and has a friend, Javier Álvarez, help him out with caring for him at his modest home.

I arrive in the morning and help make breakfast. After breakfast, I help him get dressed, combed…He has infected legs, so he gets tired and needs rest. I help with all that he might need.

After finding out about Tzu Chi’s dental services through Church, both came and received extensive dental services, free of charge in Lincoln Heights.  Chris Sariego from St. Vincent de Paul of LA, a Catholic non-profit organization, stresses the importance of the work we all do, together, to give a helping hand to individuals just like Javier and Ronald.

I think it’s a beautiful thing, that whether you’re Buddhist or whether you’re Catholic, that we can come together to provide for the poor, and to show them that there are people in the world who love them and want to serve them.

With LA’s elder population- and rates of poverty- on the rise, we know the need for services like ours will grow.  And we need your help to do it. Ronald knows this, too.

You can help others even if you’re receiving help. You can still help a large majority of people. Somebody has to do it.

Help us do more to lift the veil of hidden poverty, and give relief in the process.