Elderly people must often rely on others for things like trips to the doctor, handling their finances or chopping their firewood for winter.

The relationship can be fulfilling for both sides. But people who are closest to the elderly are also the most likely to take advantage of their vulnerability.

“I don’t know how many times I’ve heard victims — probably 100 percent of the time — say, ‘I trusted my daughter; I trusted my son,'” said Detective Seth Blodgett, the lead elder abuse investigator for the Office of the Maine Attorney General.

Abuse of older people — physical, emotional, sexual and financial — is not a new problem, but it’s increasing both in Maine and across the country. Observers say the majority of cases involve family members taking financial advantage of their parents or grandparents.

Evert Fowle, district attorney for Somerset and Kennebec counties, said his office annually prosecutes about 100 elder abuse cases involving those age 60 and older. He reviews each case personally.

Extra effort is required in order to uncover exploitation and prosecute the case successfully, he said. Fowle also wants to make sure the elderly person gets help from the correct agency if it turns out not to be a criminal case.

“Elder abuse is a hidden crime. It’s insidious, and it’s very difficult to get at,” Fowle said. “Everybody in my office is sensitized to this issue, and we make an extra effort.”

The nonprofit Legal Services for the Elderly is the only agency in Maine that provides free legal help for those older than 60.

“It’s the most heart-wrenching work our attorneys do,” said Jaye Martin, executive director of the agency.

The nonprofit organization’s attorneys have seen cases in which people get power of attorney for an elderly person and then use the power to make off with the person’s assets, Martin said.

They’ve dealt with elderly people who have been convinced to establish a joint bank account with someone, and that person then cleans out the account.

They have seen family members persuade the elderly to turn over ownership of their home and promise the elderly can still live there. But the promise is broken; the new owners sell the house and keep the proceeds.

Karen Elliott, director of Adult Protective Services at the Maine Department of Health and Human Services, said financial exploitation is a crime of opportunity.

Seniors possess the greatest concentration of wealth in the country: 70 percent of the nation’s net wealth is owned by those 50 and older, she said.

Financial abuse always involves emotional abuse and often involves physical abuse, she said.

Martin estimates at least 60 to 70 percent of perpetrators of elder abuse are family members.

Blodgett calls elder abuse just another form of domestic violence. “It’s domestic violence grown old,” he said.

Accelerating inheritance

As Maine’s elderly population increases, so will the number of cases of exploitation, police and elder advocates say.

Maine has the highest median age of any state — 42.7 years — according to the 2010 U.S. Census. Meanwhile, the population of people younger than 39 has declined in the last 10 years, while the population older than 40 has increased.

Nearly 16 percent of people in Maine are older than 65, which is higher than the national average of about 13 percent. One in five Americans is expected to be 65 and older by 2030, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

It’s important to educate people about the possibilities of elder abuse, so they can prepare ahead of time for old age, Blodgett said.

Often people wait to determine who will be their guardian until they’re diagnosed with a terminal illness. Or, family members make the decision after dementia sets in.

“People should be thinking about: What would I like to see happen? Who do I want to see responsible for my financial affairs and also assist me with my medical issues?” Blodgett said.

Complicating matters is the fact that elder abuse is an extremely under-reported problem, which means perpetrators are not being held responsible, police and elder advocates say.

About 12,000 older people in Maine each year are the victims of physical abuse, neglect or financial exploitation. But it’s estimated that 84 percent of abused elders do not come forward, according to a 2009 report compiled by the Elder Justice Training Partnership.

Many times, however, the elderly rely heavily on the people exploiting them, so they don’t want to file a report, Martin said.

“They don’t want to sever that relationship if they’re getting help with things they need,” she said.

While many elders know not to give their personal information to strangers over the phone and are leery of scams, they are more likely to trust family with such information.

“A family member can be uniquely positioned to take advantage of the trust,” Martin said. “The poor economy, which has hit everyone, has prompted more people to look to accelerating their inheritance, so to speak.”

Difficult cases

Fowle, the district attorney, has helped connect various police departments, state agencies, domestic violence groups, nursing home officials, prosecutors and first responders over the last several years. This task force meets about every two months to discuss recent elder abuse cases, what they’re doing right, and how they can improve, he said.

One thing has become clear: “These cases are hard to prove,” Fowle said.

An older person is often reluctant to testify against a family member. Sometimes the defense calls into question the elderly person’s cognitive ability.

But Fowle said he is seeing growing success. In one instance, a construction worker was convicted of stealing $700 from an elderly woman’s home in Vassalboro when he went inside under the guise of using her bathroom. He was later also convicted of gross sexual assault for an unrelated incident.

Financial exploitation is increasing. Maine’s population, Fowle said, “is aging at a faster rate than any other state, and Maine is a rural state, and there are lots of people who live in isolation and are more susceptible to financial exploitation.”

Meeting the needs of abused or exploited elderly people will be a challenge as the population grows.

Anyone who goes to Legal Services for the Elderly gets help, but Martin said if their current number increases just 5 percent, “that kind of improvement would be enough to tip us over where there’s no way, even by making the cases a priority, we would meet the need.”

Blodgett, the investigator, said if people have concerns about an older neighbor, family or community member, they should let authorities know. Sometimes an older person does not even know what is happening, he said.

Erin Rhoda — 612-2368

[email protected]


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