A Tale of Compassion and Pain: Managing bed bugs in senior living communities

A first hand account of a family’s experience battling bed bugs in Chicago low income senior housing.

Ann* struggled to find her 81-year-old aunt Irena the help she needed to rid her apartment of bed bugs. Irena, who suffers from both vision and mobility issues, did not receive adequate assistance from her building management and the problem went unchecked.

Other than periodic applications of pesticides within the apartment, management’s response to the problem consisted of telling building residents not to visit each other to prevent spreading the problem — an unreasonable and insensitive request for home-bound people facing isolation without neighborly visits.

In the following interview with Midwest Pesticide Action Center’s Executive Director Ruth Kerzee, Ann details her experience moving her aunt from the independent living community to a nursing home while struggling  to find assistance and accurate information on bed bug control before finally receiving guidance from MPAC.

Ruth: I understand your aunt Irena lived in a low income, senior independent living community on Chicago’s Near South Side  when she identified bed bugs. Can you tell me how you were brought into this problem?

Ann:  Since I had power of attorney and was her closest relative, I was tasked with moving her from the independent living apartment.  I knew this would be a problem because in the summer of 2016 my aunt Irena, who is 81 years old, told me she had a bed bug problem. She learned this from a hospital visit for a mobility problem she was having.  She had felt bites prior to this visit, but, since she has vision issues, she was unsure of what was causing them.

Ruth: Had there been any action on bed bugs at the living facility prior to this instance?

Ann:  Well, it’s difficult for me to say for sure, but it sounds to me like this had been an ongoing problem which had been reported to the City and the City had sent out an inspector. But, I don’t know the timing as to when that occurred. Also, my aunt’s apartment had been periodically “fumigated” for bed bugs as someone was coming in and spraying pesticides.  I’m not sure if it was a professional pest management company or just the building management.

My aunt was told to clean up her apartment, but due to her vision and mobility issues, I’m sure her cleaning was not adequate.  I live in California and I was only able to do so much to help.  It does not appear that the facility offered her any help.

Ruth:  Did you ask the building management about bed bugs in other apartments?

Ann: I did not ask them directly, but I know through my aunt that they had meetings with the other residents and told them to stop visiting each other to help control the problem. I thought that was very strange considering these are mostly homebound people who would be completely isolated without some sort of visiting with their neighbors.  It just seemed a completely unreasonable request and I didn’t understand how that would solve the problem. To my mind, much more should have been offered in terms of help and treatment.

Ruth: What concerned you the most about this situation?

Ann:  I did not want to bring bed bugs home with me. I knew through my work at a university in my community that bed bugs are a big headache to get rid of once you get them.

Ruth: Did the management of the apartment building offer any help or support for the move?

Ann: No! Once I convinced my aunt that the move was necessary I notified management and asked if I should do anything to prevent the spread of bed bugs or if they had any resources or guidance. They had none. They said that families just come and move their loved ones out and that’s it. They had no recommendations and knew no one to recommend for help. I was stunned that there was nothing.

Ruth:  So, where did you go for help?

Ann: First I called the EPA [Region 5 Offices, Pesticides Division] and they put me in touch with you [Midwest Pesticide Action Center], thankfully! I was able through your recommendations to contact a cleaning service that understood the problems associated with moving someone with a bed bug problem. They were very professional and really understood the issue, offering advice and solutions that I would not have been able to come up with on my own.

Ruth: Were you satisfied with the final outcome?

Ann:  Yes.  In the end, the best decision was to simply dispose of everything.  We did try to [save]  valuables, but there were very few.  Like I said, the company I worked with was very helpful in making this decision and also thoroughly cleaned the apartment once everything was moved.

Ruth: Wow! It seems like you really did the management of the building a favor.  Did the management come and inspect once the work was completed?

Ann: Not that I am aware of, but they may have once I left.

Ruth: What service or support would you have liked to have had considering the situation with your aunt?

Ann: Since it was a senior and disabled living facility, more attention should have been paid to helping the residents deal with the issue by providing them help with cleaning and inspection.  There should have been earlier interventions, certainly.  I was lucky to have the outcome I had, which was due in part to Midwest Pesticide Action Center, the EPA, and the cleaning service.

MPAC hears similar stories to Ann and Irena’s daily, where management unrealistically expects elderly and disabled people to deal with a bed bug infestation alone. Vision, mobility, and memory problems often delay detection of bed bugs until they reproduce into a full-blown infestation. These disabilities can also hinder cleaning and preparation for treatment that pest control operators require. Often, relatives are too far away to help on a day-to-day basis.

We must expect senior living community management and staff to provide elderly and disabled residents with proper inspections and physical help for cleaning and treatment preparation to prevent and control bed bugs. Under Chicago’s Bed Bug Ordinance, those facilities located in Chicago must, also, provide treatment that follows the National Pest Management Association’s best management practices. 

Adoption of a comprehensive bed bug management plan is essential to control bed bug problems in senior living facilities. Midwest Pesticide Action Center provides free bed bug trainings to Chicago’s housing community as well as webinars and contracted workshops to communities in greater Illinois.

To learn more or request a training, contact Ruth Kerzee at

*Names referenced in the interview have been changed to protect privacy.