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The Battle Against Isolation Continues: How CU Students Are Making an Impact

Public Health Program Connects Older Adults with CU Dental, Medical, Nursing and Pharmacy Students

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Written by Laura Ramsey on August 4, 2022

A dental student and a retired lawyer may seem like an unlikely pairing, but through the COVID-19 pandemic, John Gavel (DDS ’24) and Bill Nagel have shared countless conversations. They were introduced as part of an outreach program at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus: Connecting Older Adults and Students Through Interprofessional Telecare (COAST-IT).  

The CU Anschutz Multidisciplinary Center on Aging (MCoA) leads the COAST-IT program, collaborating with faculty and students from the Skaggs School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences, the CU College of Nursing, the CU School of Medicine, and the CU School of Dental Medicine (CU SDM).  

Although the program is set up to have students and older adult partners (OAPs) talk weekly or biweekly for one semester, Gavel, who is a student volunteer, has continued to connect with Nagel, his OAP, for a full year now. They talk about anything and everything, from Nagel’s career as a lawyer and his struggles with Parkinson’s disease at age 72, to Gavel’s schoolwork and young son. They learn from each other in surprising ways.  


John Gavel, DDS '25

When Nagel talks about his hospital or clinic visits, Gavel often learns new elements of the patient's experience; there is so much more than what happens between check-in and check-out.  

“Bill taught me the importance of having a strong relationship with your patients. You need to be able to talk to them openly, truly get to know them, grow with them, and make them feel comfortable. And that is a big part of what this program has added to my education.”  

Similarly, Nagel looks forward to his conversations with Gavel.  


Bill Nagel, COAST-IT participant

“The pandemic has had a significant impact on us retired folks, especially those of us with Parkinson’s or other illnesses that make us more vulnerable,” said Nagel. “COVID has been a big worry for me, and I'm not accustomed to sitting around doing nothing, so it was nice to be able to call somebody and make contact that is new and different. Every conversation I have with John is interesting—learning about his background, his dentistry experience, his wife and newborn baby—he’s got a lot going on. It’s been a wonderful experience for me." 

Gavel has realized that the COAST-IT program is not strictly about medicine or treatment (since students are not licensed yet) – it’s more about communicating and building relationships.  

“I find that today, I'm always texting or messaging people rather than actually speaking on the phone,” said Gavel. “The COAST-IT program gives me a chance to work on my listening skills, my dental knowledge and the intricacies of working with older adults, all over the phone.”


Students Are Eager to Help  

Along with Gavel, Reegan DeBruycker (DDS ’24) was one of the first dental students to volunteer for COAST-IT. During the pandemic, there weren’t many options for research or volunteer work, so this was a welcome opportunity to continue learning while also gaining social interaction while in lockdown.  

DeBruycker spoke regularly with her 97-year-old OAP, Mary, for nine months until another student took over.  

“I feel like we both got so much out of this experience and really enjoyed talking with each other. There’s always room for improvement in communication skills, especially being able to pick up on verbal and non-verbal cues, so I am grateful I got to work on that in such an enjoyable way.”  

“What’s truly amazing about this program is that both the students and the older adult participants have nothing but positive things to say,” said CU SDM Assistant Professor Deidre Callanan, RDH, DC, MPH, who facilitates the dental school’s participation in COAST-IT. “In the department of community dentistry and population health, I am always on the lookout for unique, impactful ways to help our communities. The COAST-IT program has been a constructive addition to our students’ learning, while making a positive impact on our local older adult population.”  

Callanan asked DeBruycker to film a short video about the COAST-IT program: 

“I think one of the most beneficial things I’ve gotten out of this volunteer program is learning more about the difficulties that older adults face such as hearing loss, sight issues, technology challenges, and overall accessibility." - Reegan DeBruycker (DDS ’24)  


The Future of the COAST-IT Program  

Even with the progress made in treatments and prevention of COVID-19, telecare is likely here to stay—and so is COAST-IT. This program is mutually beneficial and engaging for students and older adults alike. 


Deidre Callanan, RDH, DC, MPH; Assistant Professor, Community Dentistry and Population Health

Callanan has incorporated it into her community public health curriculum, so first-year dental students will participate now as part of their coursework.  

“It is crucial for students to have experiences interacting with people from different communities, ages, abilities, ethnicities, socioeconomic statuses, and so on. This program gives students an opportunity to make a few simple phone calls and gain so much more than they would ever expect.”  

Now that CU Dental has been participating in COAST-IT for two full semesters, Callanan will assist in continuous improvements, such as setting monthly objectives for students, providing sample questions to ask or topics to discuss, and having popular resources for older adults readily available.  




If you or someone you know may be interested in participating in this program as an older adult, please contact COAST-IT@cuanschutz.edu. If you are a current student or alumni interested in participating, please contact Jodi Waterhouse, MCoA Director of Outreach Programs, at jodi.waterhouse@cuanschutz.edu.