Lela Gause, 64, and her boyfriend, James Anthony, 64, sleep on a pair of mattresses in the center of their studio apartment, located in a building run by the Trenton (N.J.) Housing Authority. Several waves of bedbug infestations in the nine-story building have ruined their clothes and furniture, and few people visit the couple for fear of possibly carrying the parasitic insects home with them.
"I can't sleep. I am afraid I'll feel that sting, sting, bite, bite, bite all over again," says Gause. Bedbugs have left welts the size of leopard spots on her body, and there are blood stains on the wall where she has smashed the insects. And she's afraid to purchase more furniture and clothes until she knows the bugs are gone for good.
"We've witnessed really bad infestations in older adult communities and literally had [bedbugs] walking on clothes as we sit down and talk to residents," says Jeffrey White, a research entomologist for BedBugCentral.com, an information website based in Lawrenceville, N.J.
A veritable epidemic of bedbugs — the small, brownish, flat insects that feed on human blood — has erupted in the past year. Experts say extermination treatments can run upward of $900 for a two-bedroom apartment. Public awareness is growing with media alerting people to watch out for the bugs in homes, hotels, health care facilities, movie theaters and department stores throughout the country.
"Bedbugs need to be introduced into an environment," White says. "They do not jump or fly but are excellent hitchhikers and can be transported on clothing, luggage, used furniture and various other objects."
Bedbugs can be even more problematic for older people, who may not see or feel them because of diminished eyesight or physical challenges. In one severely infested apartment building in Kentucky, 76 percent of older residents reported no bite reactions, one study revealed. According to Beth Miller, M.D., clinical director of allergy and asthma at the University of Kentucky, older adults are often less responsive to allergens because of some of the medications they take. As a result, these individuals aren't aware of the bedbugs and the problem spreads unchecked.
It's especially important for apartment managers to stay on top of bedbugs. "The affordable housing industry is very much aware of the problem," says Lionel Kier, executive director of BTC Management Corp. in Trenton, N.J. "When an apartment is identified, we not only treat that apartment but those surrounding it — on the sides, above and below — to minimize further spread."
White counsels apartment managers to host meetings with tenants and insist they report a problem at the onset — even a single bug. "A lot of older adults associate bedbugs with meaning they are dirty and poor," White says. "The bugs have no association with filth. If someone tucks the bugs under the carpet the problem gets worse and more expensive to control."
Maureen McDonald is a writer in Detroit.