Hand in Hand

Dental hygiene outreach effort connects students to retirement home residents
October 6th, 2020

Caruth School of Dental Hygiene Executive Director Leigh Ann Wyatt was impressed with her students’ acts of kindness for a mentoring project.

Memories of childhood rushed in as DH2 Julianna Garza dove into her latest class assignment: mutual mentoring outreach with older adults. Her thoughts naturally 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,” she says. “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 Caruth School of Dental Hygiene’s curriculum. A new mentoring project, Hand in Hand, is Executive Director Leigh Ann Wyatt’s brainchild, a virtual version of the outreach curriculum component that was forced to change because of the coronavirus’ social distancing requirements. For years, dental hygiene students volunteered at nursing homes. Not this year. Wyatt had to redesign that segment. 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?” she says.

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 says.

Her students’ enthusiasm is real.  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.

She says 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.

DH2 Julianna Garza thought of her beloved grandfather as she completed her assignment to reach out to an elder mentor.

“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,” says 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 says she would feel absolutely blessed if her students can connect in this way. She realizes 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 says. “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 social distancing is a distant memory, Wyatt says she will most likely continue the pen-pal program. “It’s meeting deeper needs than I ever expected,” she says. “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, 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,” she says.

And 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, really, of what we had,” Wyatt says. “I’m happy it’s fulfilling the need I created it to meet.”

— Kathleen Green Pothier