Bed Bugs and the Elderly - What Seniors and Their Families Need to Know
By Don Drake, Connelly Law Offices, Ltd.
"Bed bugs are a type of insect that feeds on human blood, causing itchy bites, skin irritations, and mental distress," said professional fiduciary and certified elder law Attorney RJ Connelly III. "They are a significant public health concern, and although they are not known to transmit diseases, recent studies have revealed that bed bugs emit high levels of histamine, which can trigger asthma attacks and lead to severe health complications. They can also alter the bacterial environment around them, which can exacerbate asthma symptoms for months after they have been removed."
One of the biggest challenges with bed bugs is that not everyone reacts to their bites. In fact, about 30% of the population does not show any welts or markings. This makes it difficult to detect bed bug infestations, especially for vulnerable populations such as the elderly, newborns, and individuals with weakened immune systems. These groups may not react to bites but are still at risk of developing secondary skin infections from scratching.
"Bed bugs are notorious hitchhikers and can easily be transported into your home on clothing, luggage, furniture, backpacks, shoes, and other items," stated Attorney Connelly. "Once in your home, they can quickly spread and infest multiple rooms. This is particularly concerning for the elderly, who may be bedridden and have no way of dealing with the problem themselves. Even if they are aware of the infestation, they may not have the physical ability to address it."
Winter and Bedbugs
When temperatures drop significantly, bed bugs tend to enter a hibernation-like state. During this state, adult bed bugs can survive without feeding for months. This is because their metabolism slows down, and they become less active. However, bed bugs don't hibernate in the true sense of the word. They can still move around and even feed if they come across a host.
"Winter can be a buffet of sorts for bed bugs," said Attorney Connelly. "This is because their preferred hosts - warm human beings - tend to stay inside more during the colder months. This means that bed bugs have a higher chance of finding a host to feed on. Plus, the dry air in many homes during winter can cause skin to become dry and cracked, making it easier for bed bugs to bite and feed."
A Central Falls Story
Attorney Connelly has reported that they have come across several instances where senior citizens have been struggling with bed bug infestation in their homes and have required assistance to get rid of them. These individuals often tend to live with these pests for a long time without seeking help unless someone intervenes in their lives for some other reason. Here is a story about a Central Falls couple who had their own encounter with these pests.
A senior couple from Central Falls, Rhode Island. Giselle and her boyfriend James, both nearly 70 years old, struggled for years on an SSI income and in poor health. Giselle has been diagnosed with COPD after almost fifty years of smoking nearly a pack of cigarettes a day. James, who has issues with crack addiction, complained to the local health center of open sores on his legs.
Their small apartment consisted of three rooms and a small bathroom. The bedroom consists of a mattress on the floor, sometimes covered with a sheet spotted with blood, but more often just an open mattress – also spotted with blood.
“This is all we have,” said Giselle. “I’m afraid to go to sleep because I can feel these things crawling on me. They bite, they sting, and I scratch until I bleed. I started drinking more so I didn’t have to feel the bites and could fall asleep. Even that doesn’t work anymore.”
The bedbugs she speaks about left large welts on her legs and even affected her skin color, leaving large dark spots all over her legs. She also pointed to the blood spots on the walls, where, according to her, “I smashed them as hard as I could, but for everyone I killed, it seemed there were three more. It never stops.”
For James, things became a little more serious when he was diagnosed with an infection from the bites.
“I had these sores that just didn’t heal. I would scratch and scratch and bleed all over the place. When I went to the senior center, one of the social workers there saw the blood coming through my sock and called me to her office. I told her what was happening, and she sent me to the emergency room. They gave me medicine and salve to put on my leg, but I ask myself, what’s the point when the bugs are still where I lay my head,” said James.
Professionals were brought in to treat the home, which required all the furniture to be discarded, creating another crisis for the family, however, they were able to get new furnishings from several social service agencies. "Our skin is healing up, and I feel a little more comfortable now," said Giselle. "But every time I look at the scars on our legs, I'm still afraid that they are going to come back. It's a nightmare I keep reliving."
We Thought Bed Bugs Were Eliminated
Bedbugs were once thought to be eliminated decades ago, but their numbers began to rise again in the 1990s. The chemical DDT, credited with eliminating the parasite, was banned, leading to the resurgence of bedbugs. Initially, bedbugs appeared in the "gateway" cities of Miami, New York, San Francisco, and Los Angeles, and then they began to appear in large numbers in motels and rooming houses. The infestations then expanded into densely populated inner-city housing developments, and from there, they started showing up in premium hotels, hospitals, and nursing homes.
Today, bedbugs have reached levels of infestation never seen in any culture. Social scientists and entomologists have several theories for this resurgence, including mass immigration, less use of pesticides, and even the bedbug's development of a resistance to the current crop of pesticides being used to control them.
"Whatever the cause, bedbugs are now found in nearly every setting, from homeless shelters to five-star hotels, and they present a major health hazard for everyone, but especially for America's seniors," stated Attorney Connelly. "It is important to take necessary precautions to prevent bedbug infestations and seek professional help if an infestation is suspected."
About this Pest
Bed bugs are small, reddish-brown insects that can vary in size and color. They are about the width of a pencil and can move quickly. These pests are active at night and can travel over 100 feet in a single night, although they tend to live within 8 feet of where people sleep.
When checking for bed bugs, it's important to look for small spots on bedsheets and mattresses that resemble human blood. These spots are actually the fecal material of the parasites, although human blood may also be present from scratching the skin due to the bedbug's bite.
Bed bugs can also be detected by smell. They secrete odors that smell like over-ripe raspberries, almonds, or the herbs coriander and cilantro. Pest control companies in larger cities have trained dogs to detect these smells when trying to pinpoint large infestations. These animals are said to have a 97.5% accuracy rate in tracking down the bugs.
Bed bugs feed by biting the skin of their host for a blood meal. After feeding, they can increase in size by nearly half and double in weight. These insects can live for nearly a year and lie dormant for months without a meal while awaiting the next victim.
Female bedbugs are quite prolific and have the ability to lay 200-500 eggs within two months of birth. They lay eggs in the seams of mattresses, box springs, bed frames, headboards, dresser tables, inside cracks or crevices, behind wallpaper, or any other clutter or objects around a bed. The eggs appear tiny, white, and are hard to see without a magnifying glass.
The bite of a bedbug can cause many health symptoms, including skin rashes, pruritic papules, and nodules associated with allergic reactions. Research has also found that bed bugs carry multiple bacterium, viruses, protozoa, and parasitic worms.
The bedbug has even been found to harbor Hepatitis B and HIV within their digestive tracts for several days, although these pathogens have not been detected in their feces, and there exists no hard evidence of any transmission of these viruses due to the insect's bite.
Those who experience frequent bites may also develop physiological changes, including disturbances of the lymphatic system and, in some cases, enlargement of the spleen. Extended exposure for both small children and the elderly can result in major blood loss and anemia.
Bed bugs can find their way into the cleanest home on the pants or socks of a person who could pick them up while riding a bus or cab or even waiting in a doctor's office, and studies have shown that elderly people often do not react to the bite of bed bugs. There is no clear answer as to why this is the case, but it is suspected that medications that seniors take, such as corticosteroids, may suppress their body's response to allergens, making their immune systems less responsive than someone younger.
What exactly makes seniors especially vulnerable to bedbug infestations? Here are a few things to consider:
Apathy - For seniors, in particular, it is worth noting that even if they see bed bugs at night, they may become apathetic due to a lack of any physical signs. This can be a cause for concern, as it may delay identifying and addressing the bed bug infestation. Therefore, it is important to be vigilant and take proactive measures to prevent bed bug infestations, especially in senior living environments.
Disregard for Personal Appearance - People may become less attentive to their physical appearance and personal hygiene as they age. This can lead to a disregard for cuts, scrapes, and skin lesions, which can be a breeding ground for parasites. While apathy may not be the sole reason for ignoring the presence of these parasites, it can certainly contribute to the problem. Therefore, it is important to regularly check on elderly family members to ensure they maintain good hygiene practices and promptly address any skin issues. Doing so can help prevent the spread of parasites and other harmful infections.
Embarrassment - Some seniors may feel embarrassed or ashamed if they discover that there are bedbugs in their living situation. This is because there is a common misconception that bedbugs only infest dirty homes or people who do not maintain proper hygiene. As a result, when seniors notice bite marks on their skin, they may become quite concerned about what others will think of them. Always approach the situation with sensitivity and understanding, as your loved one may feel embarrassed or ashamed about the situation.
Not an Issue of Cleanliness - It is a common misconception that bedbugs only infest dirty homes. However, the truth is that bedbugs can infest any home, regardless of its cleanliness. That being said, there is a correlation between clutter and bedbug infestations. Bedbugs find it easier to infest a cluttered home, especially if the clutter is around a couch or a bed. This is because clutter provides more hiding places for bedbugs to lay their eggs and hide from predators.
Clutter - People who have lived a full life and have accumulated personal items over the years are more susceptible to bedbug infestations. This is because bedbugs can easily hide in the crevices of personal items such as books, clothing, and furniture. Therefore, it is important to regularly declutter and organize personal items to reduce the risk of bedbug infestations.
Fear of "the system" - Many elderly individuals who discover a bedbug infestation in their homes may feel hesitant to disclose it to others. This is because they fear that they may be deemed incapable of taking care of themselves and may be forced to move into a senior care facility, thereby losing their independence. This situation can be distressing for them as they value their autonomy and wish to continue living in their homes.
If you happen to find bedbugs in your home, it is highly recommended that you seek the assistance of a professional pest control firm to address the issue. These experts have the necessary knowledge and expertise to identify the areas where bedbugs are likely to hide and use approved pesticides to treat the location effectively. It is important to note that infected items, such as mattresses or upholstered furniture, must be either discarded or treated to prevent the spread of bedbugs.
Avoid trying to treat bedbugs yourself, especially if you are a senior citizen. Seniors are more likely to have medical problems such as COPD, which makes them more susceptible to the effects of insecticides. Additionally, those with breathing problems are more affected by airborne irritants and the additives used in pesticide products. Therefore, it is best to leave the treatment of bedbugs to the professionals.
"We hope this detailed information provides you with some insight into the issue of bedbugs and seniors," said Attorney Connelly. "Remember, it is always better to be safe than sorry, so take the necessary precautions to protect yourself and your loved ones from bed bugs, and if you suspect these pests have invaded your home, seek professional assistance as soon as possible."
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