AUGUSTA, Maine — While consumer debt for most Americans has dropped dramatically since the financial crisis hit in late 2008, one segment of Maine’s population has fallen deeper into debt.

The Maine nonprofit group Legal Services for the Elderly announced Wednesday it has formed a consumer debt unit to help elderly residents struggling to pay off consumer debt.

In 2009, the organization saw a 27 percent increase in the number of people over the age of 60 seeking help in managing debt, according to Jaye Martin, executive director of Legal Services for the Elderly.

“We have seen a remarkable increase in calls from people looking for help with their debt over the last few years — from 866 cases in 2006 to over 1,200 cases last year,” she said in a press release issued Wednesday. “Many of our callers have always been able to pay their bills on time.

“When something happens in a senior’s life, and the senior can’t make ends meet, and on top of everything find they are being harassed by bill collectors, the situation inevitably adversely impacts the senior’s mental and physical health,” Martin continued. “Our new Consumer Debt Unit is focused on helping the growing number of seniors who face debt problems handle these very stressful situations.”

Many factors have contributed to the increase in consumer debt among the state’s older residents, according to Legal Services for the Elderly.

“The two big ones,” Martin said, “are there’s been a big growth in the elderly population in Maine, period. We’ve had more of an increase than any state but Virginia over the last eight years. The other factor is Maine has a high rate of poverty among the elderly.”

Increases in the cost of fuel, food and medicine over the past several years have forced seniors to make difficult and, sometimes, life-threatening choices, she said, when it comes to paying their bills. The elderly have turned to credit cards — applications for which they often receive unsolicited in the mail — then have been unable to keep up with the payments.

The death of a spouse and the loss of a second income from a pension or Social Security is one of the most common reasons an elderly Mainer becomes unable to pay his or her bills, according to Legal Services for the Elderly. Other common reasons are a medical problem or the misuse of a credit card by a senior’s relative or acquaintance.

When seniors seek help from Legal Services for the Elderly, staff in the Augusta office assesses their financial situation, including the amount of money they owe and their ability to pay creditors. Some clients simply are unable to repay their credit card debt and can be made collection-proof, Martin said. Others simply need advice on how to manage their debt responsibly and make modest payments.

“The most heart-wrenching calls we get are from seniors facing consumer debt,” Martin said. “Many of them have never failed to pay a bill on time before. They’re getting harassing phone calls from debt collectors. They’re afraid they’ll go to jail. Just trying to make ends meets puts an emotional stress on that’s so hard on an older person.”

The unit is staffed by a part-time attorney and a full-time paralegal, according to Martin. It has been funded for three years by a grant from the Administration on Aging in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

For information on the program, call 1-800-750-5353.