By Mario A. Cortez
At a dental clinic located inside Fourth Avenue’s Serving Seniors center in downtown San Diego, Karen Becerra is fighting back against a silent epidemic affecting some of our most vulnerable neighbors.
“Many seniors are living with limited incomes and they are not able to access healthcare services. Why? Because they have to pay for rent food and medication.” Becerra said to La Prensa San Diego. “You don’t have to do the math to see that dentist appointments are unaffordable for them.”
A study by the American Dental Association’s Health Policy Institute shows that approximately 67 percent of low-income seniors did not visit a dentist in the last year. And with about 10,000 people in the United States turning 65 daily, the number of senior citizens with dental service needs keeps growing.
As director and CEO of the Gary and Mary West Senior Dental Center, Becerra has taken the lead in connecting seniors on a limited income to quality dental care. Since opening its doors two years ago, the dental center has provided affordable services to hundreds of seniors, allowing them to smile and live a healthier life.
“With seniors and how their oral health affects their overall health it is not just about them being able to bite things,” she explained. “When seniors do not have enough teeth to eat, they become malnourished or they cannot speak, so when they are in pain they isolate themselves so they become depressed or gloomy and when their gums become infected it really affects their overall health.”
Becerra pointed to her youth in Colombia when tracing back the origins of her passion for helping others. She also cited many of her relatives working as laboratory technicians as an influence in choosing to major in dentistry over psychology at Universidad Javeriana.
“I always had a passion for helping others and I always liked making people smile,” she remembered. “An uncle and my grandpa were lab technicians, so both of them told me I could help people in dentistry and my grandpa specifically worked a lot with making dentures so that people can smile and today I do just that, I help people smile confidently and feel great.”
While still in Colombia, Becerra extended her talents to community clinics and advocacy groups demanding better health for impoverished communities. While working on her master’s in public health, this sense to help others continued to grow.
When Becerra decided to come to California, she successfully cleared every dental board exam and accreditation required for a foreign dentist to open up their practice, even one which required she drive up a patient to San Francisco. After a bit of networking and some patient referrals, her very own dental practice took off and operated for several years.
But despite achieving one of her goals, a near-death event lead her to a revelation which put her back into public service.
“So I was in a single-engine airplane that failed in the air and as I lived through what I believed were the last minutes of my life, I realized it doesn’t matter what degrees you have or how much money you make, the only thing that matters is what you leave behind,” Becerra recalled.
“So after not dying, and once the plane landed, I saw that I had to make a difference. I told myself that my private practice can wait,” she continued.
Today, as the head of the Gary and Mary West Senior Dental Center, Becerra is responsible for many operational and administrative tasks which keep the clinic running. However, she still takes a day out of the week to practice on her senior patients.
Coming from a culture where the elderly remain close to their families, seeing the cultural differences in the treatment seniors receive in the United States and the difficulties many seniors living on their own face adds a layer of importance to the work being done at the clinic, work that can be life changing even in life’s latter chapters.
“I have a female patient who could not afford a very complex procedure she needed. We stated to work with a specialist and I remember it was going to be Mother’s Day and she did not want to have a big dinner because of how her mouth was. But her son was trying to have her go out and celebrate. Luckily, we were able to fix her mouth and treat her infection in time, which made them both very happy and grateful,” Becerra shared.
“We have many more have stories where we have restored people’s mouths, which led them to interact or reconnect with their families again and feel better about themselves,” she added.
As the head of this dental nonprofit, Becerra invited the public to learn more and to give of their time or whatever is possible to keep her and the clinic’s work strong.
“We rely on volunteers and donations that we can provide care to anyone. Please visit our webpage if you would like to learn more,” she closed.
For more information, please visit https://seniordentalcenter.org/.