AUGUSTA — A man, down on his luck, moved in with his elderly grandfather. He ran up his grandfather’s phone bill, used his car and didn’t pay for gas.

One day the grandson simply left, taking his grandfather’s car with him but leaving his own cat behind. The grandfather was too kind to give the animal away.

Eventually, the grandfather faced eviction. He couldn’t pay his rent. So he moved in with his son, who allegedly had abused him verbally before.

That story was recounted by Kristin Overton, director of Bridges Home Care in Augusta, in written testimony on a bill that seeks to give the elderly more protection from financial abuse — an issue that is expected to mushroom as the state’s population continues to age.

The bill, L.D. 527, sponsored by Rep. Mark Dion, D-Portland, a former Cumberland County sheriff, passed in the Maine House of Representatives on Tuesday. It now awaits votes in the Senate. It would clarify state law to say those with dementia and other cognitive impairments are unable to consent to financially abusive conduct by caregivers that would be criminal without the consent defense.

In the state aging plan, released in 2012, the Maine Department of Health and Human Services said 1 in 5 Mainers over age 65 have been exploited financially by family, caregivers or scammers.

Dion, a former police officer who is now a lawyer, said that as an investigator he often walked away unsatisfied from unprovable cases involving elders. Often, many seniors couldn’t “consent the way the general public understands consent,”x1D he said.

At a public hearing in March, Dion’s bill was supported by the AARP and Maine Association of Area Agencies on Aging. Dion said he worked with a number of interest groups on the bill.

The bill also provides that consent cannot be induced by “undue influence” — defined as misuse or manipulation of trusting relationship between a caregiver and someone over 60.

It also increases the penalty for the crime of misuse of entrusted property to a felony when the victim is 60 years of age or older, incapacitated or dependent, as long as the value is more than $1,000. A 2009 report from the Maine Office of the Attorney General said 84 percent of elder-abuse cases go unreported, as victims either can’t report crimes, can’t keep themselves safe or are too afraid to tell someone.

“Elder victims are usually reliant on perpetrators for their care,” said Jessica Maurer, executive director of the Maine Association of Area Agencies on Aging, in written testimony in March. “To gain compliance with their demands, perpetrators often use threats of withdrawal of love, care, medications, food, social interactions, and promises of institutionalization.”

By some measures, Maine is the oldest state in the country. Dion cited a “graying x1D population” as a main impetus for the bill. An analysis of U.S. Census data released by Gov. Paul LePage’s Office of Policy and Management earlier this month says Maine has the nation’s highest percentage of baby boomers, at 29.4 percent; and the oldest median age, 43. And the state is getting older: a 2005 U.S. Census Bureau projection of population data said Maine’s population of those 65 years and older would increase by 190,615 between 2000 and 2030, from 14.4 percent of the state’s population to 26.5 percent, second to only Florida.

As Maine gets older, the scope of its dementia problem is expected to worsen. According to the Department of Health and Human Services’ state aging plan, released in 2012, 37,000 Mainers had been diagnosed with some form of dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease. That is expected to balloon to 53,000 by 2020.

The plan says “combating financial exploitation of elders must become a top priority,”x1D citing its effect on victims and on the state’s economy. In a 2011 study, MetLife, an insurance company, said elderly victims of financial abuse lost $2.9 billion annually.

Most victims in the MetLife study were between 80 and 89 years of age, lived on their own and required help with either health care or home maintenance. Nearly 60 percent of abusers were males, most of whom were between the ages of 30 and 59.

At the public hearing in March, however, the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine, opposing the bill, said while exploitation of the elderly is of concern in an aging state, the bill may not help.

“We do not believe the creation of a new law or harsher punishments will deter individuals from committing acts of elder abuse,”x1D said Jill Barkley, the ACLU of Maine’s public policy advocate, in written testimony.

Dion agreed that it wouldn’t eradicate the problem.

“But I’m hoping it’s going to give investigators and prosecutors a little bit more leverage into getting what I think is private crime that needs to be addressed,”x1D he said.

Michael Shepherd — 370-7652
[email protected]
Twitter: @mikeshepherdme

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