front end of the dental van at Case Western Reserve University, with the School of Dental Medicine in the background.

Driving dental care into the neighborhood

Case Western Reserve’s School of Dental Medicine launches new partnership with Hough Heritage to bring oral health care to seniors

The “Lifelong Smiles” van is adding a new stop on its tour to deliver high-quality, discounted dental care to Cleveland-area seniors.

The geriatric dental van is part of an initiative at the Case Western Reserve School of Dental Medicine to train dental students to treat older patients and, at the same time, offer needed services to residents of nursing and assisted-living facilities.

The dental school’s newest partnership with Hough Heritage, a low-income housing facility for seniors, was made official on Aug. 6 with the van’s first visit. About a dozen patients walked out the front door of their homes, adjacent to the new dental school, and into the 38-foot-long mobile dental operatory.

dentist works on a patient
Suparna Mahalaha, an assistant professor at the dental school and the director of the Lifelong Smiles program, works on a patient in the Lifelong Smiles geriatric care van.

“Some seniors find it difficult to visit the dentist,” said Suparna Mahalaha, an assistant professor at the dental school and the program’s director. “The best part is that these seniors have more access to care. Of course, patients can always come to the dental school for treatment, but if you’re older and have a difficult time getting around, wouldn’t it be nice to have the dentist pull up to your building?”

That’s the case for retiree and military veteran Amos Renix, a resident in Hough Heritage. Renix, like many of Lifelong Smiles patients, falls through the cracks in insurance coverage—not enough from the Veterans Affairs and none at all from Medicare.

“Insurance has been a problem for me,” Renix said. “It’s been quite a while since I’ve been to the dentist. And I haven’t had this much dental care since I was a child.”

The program fits in with the dental school’s goal of helping to meet the needs of an aging population, Mahalaha said. The nation’s senior population—ages 65 and older—is expected to surpass 72 million by 2030, according to federal estimates. That’s more than double the number from 2000.

Care that keeps rolling on

The vehicle itself resembles an RV that’s been converted into a high-tech dental office on wheels—featuring fully functioning dental chair stations, office space, digital X-rays and a wheelchair lift—with the capacity to treat two patients at a time.

The Lifelong Smiles initiative began in 2015. The McGregor Foundation has helped fund the program since its inception, dedicating more than $200,000 to the van. The new partnership with Hough Heritage adds to the initiative’s other Cleveland-area affiliations with the McGregor PACE, Jewish Family Services Association and Eliza Bryant Village.

Mahalaha and Lisa Blackmon, a visiting assistant professor at the dental school, oversee the third- and fourth-year students, who have a clinical geriatric rotation in which they provide dental care, assess patients and discuss overall treatment plans with students of medicine, nursing, pharmacy and social work.

“It’s important for the students to have and see others’ interactions with these patients,” she said. “These seniors are so appreciative. What we offer them, they give back to us ten-fold. It’s one thing to be clinically excellent. It’s another thing to be compassionate.”

For more information, contact Colin McEwen at