The names and the details change, but the heartache remains when a son, daughter or other family member financially exploits, physically abuses or neglects an elderly or otherwise vulnerable relative.

Oftentimes, the victim is too ashamed to report the crime. Sometimes the victim is too incapacitated to report it.

As the population ages, an explosion of such cases is likely, Ramsey County Attorney Susan Gaertner said Tuesday in announcing the creation of an elder abuse unit to prosecute crimes against people who are victimized because of their age, vulnerabilities or family relationships.

Some recent examples:

• Lorraine Clark is legally blind and had her eldest son's name put on her checks so he could pay her bills. She didn't learn that Scott Clark was using her money for other things until her phone was disconnected, her medical insurance canceled and her Meals on Wheels stopped coming. Scott Clark, 53, is scheduled to be sentenced for felony theft Jan. 14. He must pay restitution of more than $45,000.

• Lisa Allred's mother gave her power of attorney to pay her nursing home bills after a series of strokes in 2007. Instead, Allred, 48, is accused of bilking her mother of almost $22,000. Her case is pending in Ramsey County District Court.

The elder abuse unit will include two specially trained attorneys to review cases for charges, four trial attorneys and a victim/witness advocate. All will focus on such crimes as physical and sexual abuse, financial exploitation and scams aimed at the elderly.

"We will be seeing dramatic growth in this vulnerable population," Gaertner said. "The baby boomers are going to be moving into this age group. They tend to be wealthier and live longer than the generations before and so we anticipate more and more of these kinds of cases.

"Another layer to this is the economic crisis we face. There's going to be more and more of a temptation to exploit the financial resources of the elderly when their offspring or other younger relatives are losing their jobs and facing other economic problems."

Although Gaertner said there were no precise numbers to forecast, "our sense is that we're talking about dozens of cases in the coming year," she said.

The unit's attorneys also will work with police, the St. Paul city attorney's office, social service agencies and advocacy groups. An important component will be public education and awareness, Gaertner said.

As Hennepin County attorney, Amy Klobuchar started an elder abuse unit, which still focuses on financial exploitation, identity theft and abuse cases.

"Is there anything worse than stealing Grandma's money so she can't get medication or eat properly?" Gaertner asked rhetorically. "That's why we feel so strongly about doing this work."

Pat Pheifer • 651-298-1551