Unexpected expenses can really set a retiree back financially — and debt can pile up. (iStock)

We like to daydream that our senior years will be not just a retirement from long work hours, awful commutes and bosses who get on our nerves but a respite with fewer financial worries.

Increasingly, however, seniors are carrying into retirement a burden that’s just too heavy. Too many seniors are retiring with a lot of debt, or they are accumulating debt after they leave the workforce.

The National Council on Aging looked at debt among seniors, and its survey results are troubling. Professionals who work with seniors were asked about their clients’ debt load and how it affected their economic security.

The council’s report, released this week, found that debt is a major issue, especially for seniors who are in poor health and already struggling financially.

“Living on a fixed income can make it difficult to budget adequately to leave a cushion for emergencies,” the report said. “As such, unexpected costs — an unforeseen hospitalization, a vehicle requiring repair or even emergency veterinary care for a sick pet — can plunge seniors into unmanageable debt.”

Fifty-one percent of the surveyed professionals said they frequently deal with seniors who have overwhelming medical debt, and 36 percent said they see seniors with unmanageable, overdue utility charges. Almost 30 percent said they frequently see seniors with burdensome credit-card debt.

We know from various other surveys that U.S. households have been piling on debt. And unfortunately, that trend has not escaped the senior population. The Federal Reserve Board’s Survey of Consumer Finances found that among older adult households with debt, median total debt increased from $18,385 in 2001 to $40,900 in 2013, according to the council report.

Of senior households with credit-card debt, 1 in 4 had a balance of at least $7,200 in 2013. To some of you, this may not seem like much. But seniors are racking up debt at a time in their lives when they’re likely to be on a fixed income. They can’t rely on raises or job-hopping for better pay to help dig them out.

In 2007, only 0.5 percent of senior households had taken out payday loans. By 2013, this figure was 2.2 percent. With payday loans, borrowers give lenders postdated personal checks or authorize an electronic funds withdrawal. The loans are supposed to be paid back quickly — by the time the loan recipient is paid again or gets a benefits check. But customers can spend months trying to pay back the money, rolling one loan into another — and amassing hundreds of dollars in fees. I wouldn’t want to see a single senior end up on this type of loan hamster wheel.

Here’s why all this matters. When seniors can’t make ends meet, they start to make financial compromises, said Maggie Flowers, the National Council on Aging’s associate director for economic security. She added that some professionals who were interviewed work with seniors who cut their medication dosages to save money. Others cancel doctor appointments. They miss rent or mortgage payments. They don’t make home repairs. They skip meals. Or they avoid meeting up with friends because they can’t afford it.

“If they don’t make needed home repairs, that increases the risk of accidents and falls,” Flowers said. “Regularly cutting pills is extremely dangerous. Avoiding social engagements can lead to isolation. Missing meals can lead to nutrient deficiencies.”

In addition to bringing needed attention to this issue, the council is trying to enable financially overwhelmed seniors to better help themselves. It has created a resource page (ncoa.org/seniordebt) on its website to give seniors some guidance.

If you know a senior in debt, encourage him or her to use the council’s “BenefitsCheckUp” tool (benefitscheckup.org), a free resource that helps people figure out if they qualify for programs that provide financial assistance for health care, prescriptions, food and other services. The database includes more than 2,000 public and private benefits programs from all 50 states and the District of Columbia. Answer a few questions, and seniors get a general list of available aid. But if they press ahead and provide additional information about, among other things, household income, expenses and assets, they’ll get information with state-specific programs and other benefits.

The council also has an “EconomicCheckUp” tool (economiccheckup.org) that provides budgeting assistance, calculators, tips for managing debt and other money-management resources.

If nothing else, use the council’s report to start a conversation with a senior who may need some help. This issue isn’t about somebody else’s relative. It could be your loved one. And it may touch you one day.

Readers may write to Michelle Singletary at The Washington Post, 1301 K St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071 or michelle.singletary@
washpost.com. To read previous Color of Money columns, go to wapo.st/michelle-singletary.