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Outreach effort connects dental hygiene students to retirement home residents

A new pen-pal project, Hand in Hand, allows dental hygiene students to become comfortable interacting with older adults
Executive Director Leigh Ann Wyatt stands beside handmade student pen-pal projects

Memories of childhood rushed in as second-year dental hygiene student Julianna Garza dove into her latest class assignment: mutual mentoring outreach with older adults. Her thoughts turned to her grandfather and the treasured letters he gave to her as gifts over the years.

“I always felt so special being able to receive something from him, especially a handwritten sentiment that I could keep forever,” Garza said. “It was my hope that I could continue to ‘communicate’ with my grandfather through this project in a way.”

Reaching out to retirement home residents has long been a part of the curriculum at the Caruth School of Dental Hygiene at Texas A&M University College of Dentistry. For years, dental hygiene students volunteered at nursing homes, but when the coronavirus arrived earlier this year and physical distancing requirements were implemented, Caruth Executive Director Leigh Ann Wyatt, BSDH, MA, MS, had to rethink that component. What she came up with was a new mentoring project, Hand in Hand, a virtual version of the outreach curriculum component. She wanted the update to still offer the same kind of encounter and value to students, many of whom have had little contact with aging grandparents or any senior citizens at all.

“How can we expect them to be comfortable interacting with senior citizens and caring for them as our elders and future patients if they don’t even know how to talk to them or value interaction with them?” Wyatt said.

The mutual mentoring initiative pairs students with residents at Edgemere, a North Dallas retirement community. The outreach curriculum requires that students submit four projects sprinkled throughout the semester.

When Wyatt joyfully sifted through students’ first round of contributions, Garza’s written sentiments grabbed at her heartstrings. The dental hygiene student requested that she be matched to a male pen pal “because she lost her grandfather in the summer and is hoping that she can connect and they can become like family. I died. I was just bawling. So sweet,” Wyatt said.

Her students’ enthusiasm is real. Wyatt said an obvious dose of great care, thought and time was put into each project. There were photos of beloved vacations, including requests for their new pen pals to share their favorite vacation-spot remembrances. Then there was a canvas brightly painted in silver and pastels, which read, “Choose happiness.” Garza included a photo of herself at age 1 brushing her teeth.

Garza said her handwritten letter shared personal information about her life and her family, including that snapshot of her early days tending to her own oral health care. In return, she asked her new pen pal to do the same, potentially opening up ongoing dialogue.

“I plan to write back and forth with my assigned pen pal and hopefully give them a form of communication that is different from what they may be getting now, and even give them something to look forward to,” said Garza, who grew up in Dallas and graduated from Baylor University. “I mostly hope to gain a new friendship through this project and to bring a smile to the face of the person that receives my letters.”

Wyatt said she would feel “absolutely blessed” if her students can connect in this way. She said that she benefited greatly from everyday bonding with her own grandparents.

“It’s a huge gift that I had them and saw them every day. People are so spread out now,” she said. “Hopefully some good, lifelong connections are made. Every year, maybe these people are going to get an extra grandchild.”

Wyatt chose Edgemere because a dear friend resides there: Patricia Wessendorff, founding director of Caruth from 1955 to 1961. She has helped Wyatt make this happen.

Once physical distancing is a distant memory, Wyatt said she will most likely continue the pen-pal program. “It’s meeting deeper needs than I ever expected,” she said. “Some of these students really wanted a relationship. It’s my prayer that their relationships are formed and go on long after the course ends.”

Garza suspects, as her mentor Wyatt designed, that these sweet little handwritten gestures will enlighten her professionally as well as personally.

“Communication in any form is so important in the dental hygiene profession,” Garza said.

Although curriculum adjustments have been a tremendous challenge for Texas A&M College of Dentistry faculty these past few months, there have been “silver linings and beautiful things out of the dust of what we had,” Wyatt said. “I’m happy it’s fulfilling the need I created it to meet.”

This story by Kathleen Green Pothier originally appeared in Dentistry Insider.

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