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Rising debt plaguing seniors’ Golden Years

Hanah Cho | 6/13/2012, 9:39 a.m.

Adults 65 and over are the fastest-growing age group among people filing for bankruptcy protection, according to Pottow’s research. He found that older debtors carry 50 percent more credit card debt than younger debtors. Seniors cited credit card debt as a reason for their bankruptcy more frequently than did younger bankruptcy filers, according to his research.

Mary Aquino, a staff attorney with Legal Aid’s Baltimore County Elder Law Program, said she recalled a client of age 75, who was nine months behind on her mortgage, with $10,000 in credit card debt and an additional $36,000 in student-loan debt. The woman’s sole income was a monthly $1,100 Social Security check.

“She’s hoping to file for bankruptcy and keep her home,” said Aquino, noting that student loans are usually not discharged in bankruptcy.

Norman Harvel, too, wants relief from his mounting debt.

Besides getting dozens of late and collection notices for his and his wife’s medical bills, Harvel is being sued by a funeral home, which provided services for his mother, who died in 2009. Harvel said he put up the money for the service, using all his savings and cashing out some savings bonds. But he still owes $986, plus interest, court and attorney fees.

Harvel expressed a mix of guilt and remorse for racking up so much debt but said he simply does not have the means to pay it off.

After being homeless for eight months, Harvel now has a place to live, thanks to the Baltimore County Department of Aging.

A bankruptcy, Harvel said, would give him a fresh start and peace of mind. After Harvel put away about $200 to pay for bankruptcy in recent months, Del Pizzo, the Dundalk lawyer, agreed recently to file the paperwork pro bono.

“Maybe I’ll start seeing a little bit of sunlight,” Harvel said.

Hanah Cho wrote this article as part of a MetLife Foundation Journalists in Aging Fellowship, a project of New America Media and the Gerontological Society of America.