BANGOR, Maine — Like many elderly people who have saved for their retirements, Meredith Purcell’s 89-year-old mother thought she was set for life. Now she’s living on her meager Social Security income of $1,300 a month — barely enough to pay for her home in a low-income housing project.

According to prosecutors in the case, which last week found Purcell guilty of Class B theft by unauthorized taking and Class D misuse of entrusted property, no problems were evident until another family member noticed unpaid bills and letters from the Internal Revenue Service about unpaid taxes.

Assistant Attorney General Leanne Robbin, who called the case an example of financial exploitation of the elderly, said Purcell methodically frittered away her mother’s money, using it to pay for credit card bills, a Florida vacation and gambling at Hollywood Slots in Bangor.

The woman, who is not being named because she is a victim, had about $65,000 in various accounts when Purcell took over her power of attorney in 2008. While Robbin was convinced Purcell committed the crimes, defense attorney James Billings of Augusta maintained Purcell’s innocence even after her conviction. He said the verdict — for which Purcell will be sentenced early next year — would put a chill into anyone else who opts to control the finances of an elderly loved one.

“Who in Maine will feel safe acting as the power of attorney for a loved one if some disgruntled individual can come along after the fact and second-guess all that has happened?” said Billings to the jurors, according to a previous article in the Bangor Daily News.

The case is one of many similar circumstances across Maine. There are an estimated 14,000 new reports of elder abuse in Maine every year, which, according to Ricker Hamilton, director of the Maine Office of Aging and Disability Services, represents only about 15 percent of instances of elder abuse that actually happen.

“It’s underreported and underrecognized,” said Hamilton. “In elder abuse, half the victims generally can’t tell us what happened. The other half are so embarrassed to talk about it that most of them just don’t.”

An estimated 5 percent of Mainers older than 60 become victims of elder abuse, approximately 90 percent of them at the hands of family members, loved ones or professional caregivers, and approximately 85 percent of victims never report it, said Hamilton.

Still, examples of documented elder abuse are everywhere, according to a nonprofit organization in Maine called Legal Services for the Elderly. In Cumberland County, an 82-year-old World War II veteran had his daughter living with him after he suffered two strokes. When he finally called an attorney, his daughter had taken ownership of his home and depleted a savings account from more than $20,000 to $15 and taken a personal car loan with him as a co-signer.

Sometimes victims are hesitant to report the crimes because doing so would put them at risk of losing their primary caregiver — even if that person is abusive.

“Some people might think, ‘The abuse that I’m receiving now may be more acceptable than me going into a nursing home and losing my independence,’” said Hamilton. “They’re thinking, ‘I may lose my only caregiver.’”

But elder abuse is moving into the limelight like never before, according to advocates for the elderly. They hope the attention will help lift the stigma of victims reporting the crimes and help those around them better recognize when something is amiss.

Renewed federal focus

A milestone study by the federal Government Accountability Office as well as initiatives at the state and local levels aim to bring new cooperation and understanding into the fight against elder abuse, but it’s a thorny issue with few easy answers.

Organizations are working to solve the problem at virtually every level, from local senior citizen centers and law enforcement TRIAD organizations to the Maine Department of Health and Human Services to the federal Department of Justice. Despite those resources, a report released last week by the Government Accountability Office said at-risk seniors and those who already have been victimized would be better served by improved coordination of efforts and better training.

Hamilton and others told the Bangor Daily News that Maine, which has the oldest per-capita population in the country, is ahead of many other states in its efforts to fight the problem, though exploited elders remain one of the biggest victim pools that too many people know nothing about.

“When you mention family violence, people think you must be talking about younger women and children,” said Hamilton. “Really, we miss that whole spectrum of elder victims. I’ve seen a lot of DHHS public service announcements about heightening awareness of child abuse, but I can’t remember seeing one on elder abuse.”

Just the fact that the issue has been studied by the venerable GAO, which is the investigative arm of Congress, is a milestone in itself, said Hamilton. But the federal government is showing it’s serious in other ways, including the formation of the Elder Justice Coordinating Council earlier this year. High-level federal officials involved in the organization include U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, Attorney General Eric Holder and Secretary on Aging Kathy Greenlee.

The council, which was created within the federal Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, will focus on cross-agency coordination of activities related to elder abuse, neglect and exploitation.

“Just to be able to say that elder abuse is finally at the Cabinet level for discussion is great,” said Hamilton. “Funds are minimal at this point, but I think there’s a commitment in the federal government to move the issue forward.”

Proven methods

Jaye Martin, executive director of Legal Services for the Elderly, said one of the key recommendations of the report is more training across numerous agencies that deal with elder abuse, but training needs to be followed up with funding.

“There have been some good efforts, but in my personal view they have not been sustained efforts. It’s really been a funding issue. We aren’t seeing year-after-year training rolled out. It tends to lapse again as the funding lapses,” she said.

Training such as that could help officials recognize situations that to outsiders might not appear to be abusive, such as the case of a 78-year-old Androscoggin County woman whose daughter sold her home and moved her into a camper in the daughter’s backyard. At a casual glance, the situation might not have appeared abusive, but according to Martin, the daughter and her boyfriend depleted the woman’s life savings over the course of two years.

Because elder abuse often has a financial component, there is a growing awareness of the problem in the financial services sector, which the GAO report identified as being on the front lines of elder abuse.

Chris Pinkham, president of the Maine Bankers Association, said banks work with tellers to flag unusual account activity that might suggest a person is being victimized.

“Obviously, this is of grave concern to bankers because if we don’t do it right, it’s front-page news,” said Pinkham. “These situations aren’t always crystal clear. If you make a call it’s going to require a visit by the State of Maine or at least a contact. If you’re wrong, that is a very big blemish on the bank and you have an angry customer.”

Pinkham said most bank tellers are well-trained — often by law enforcement officials — to respond to questionable situations discreetly, such as suggesting a private conversation in a nearby office or handing them a palm card with contact information for elder abuse agencies.

Pinkham suggested that anyone who allows another person access to their money should keep most of it in a secure account and set up a special account where the caregiver or family member has access to limited funds.

Brenda Gallant, director of Maine’s Long-Term Care Ombudsman Program, said one of her mostly volunteer staff’s objectives is training personnel in the 359 facilities it oversees to recognize signs of elder abuse. In many cases, that triggers response from a range of agencies.

“It takes a network to protect people,” said Gallant. “Our volunteers go out and provide a lot of training around mandatory reporting.”

Hamilton said a wide-ranging change in attitude toward elder abuse would help bring it more into the open, much like what has happened over the years with child and domestic abuse.

“What we need to do is for all these groups who say seniors are our priority, talking about elder abuse ought to always be the first thing out of our mouth,” he said. “We ought to be talking about it at every turn.”

Christopher Cousins has worked as a journalist in Maine for more than 15 years and covered state government for numerous media organizations before joining the Bangor Daily News in 2009.