Experts gather in Ottawa to discuss mounting debt faced by seniors

More and more seniors are retiring with debt, according to Statistics Canada

Experts from around the world are gathering in Ottawa to discuss the rise of mounting debt faced by more and more seniors in Canada and abroad.

The senior’s debt conference, Carrying Debt to the Grave? The Increasing Indebtedness of the Elderly, at Carleton University features four panels that will examine the effect that owing money has on older populations in Canada, the Netherlands, Portugal and the U.S.

“We realized … that the problem of debt amongst the elderly was something that crossed international boundaries,” Saul Schwartz, professor of public policy and administration and one of the conference’s organizers, told CBC News.

“We knew that people were working on this issue but we didn’t think they were talking to each other, so we decided to try and bring them together. People working on health issues, people working in the international context, people working on bankruptcy.”

In 2012, 42.5 per cent of people aged 65 and over still had debt, which was a staggering increase of 55 per cent compared to 1999, according to Statistics Canada.

While the data is useful, Schwartz said finding more current research has been a bit of a challenge. “We don’t have firm numbers, we don’t have hard statistics on those kinds of issues,” he said.

However, Schwartz can point to a number of factors — such as a big mortgage, getting divorced, illness and elder abuse — that have led many seniors into debt.

“The prevalence of those things has been increasing and therefore the problems of debt amongst the elderly have been increasing,” he said.

Seniors taking on debt to help family

There’s also an increasing problem of seniors taking on debt to help their adult children.

Stacy Yanchuk Oleksy, director of education & community awareness at the Credit Counselling Society, said she often hears about adults having to say “no” to their adult children.

She points to one couple who was retired and took out a line of credit secured against their home to help their son move back home with his wife so that he could then save money to buy his own home.

She said there are other seniors who “have such a deep sense of obligation to pay their debt, they will forego repairs to their home, medication, food, which has a significant impact on health and stress.”

An international example

Nadja Jungmann, who works at the University of Applied Science in Utrecht, Netherlands, said her country is also dealing with a growing older population that is struggling.

“The number of people who are getting into debt is increasing but the elderly increased, on average, more than the other group,” she said in an interview.

Jungmann points to similar factors as the ones in Canada to explain the rise. “There are more divorced people and … women, they often don’t have a good pension so if they’re on government benefits it’s often hard to make ends meet,” she said.

Nadja Jungmann (left) and Saul Schwartz are moderating panels at the “Carrying Debt to the Grave? The Increasing Indebtedness of the Elderly” conference in Ottawa. (Idil Mussa/CBC)

“[We see] more and more people working after they are 65 because they need the money.”

In addition, some seniors are choosing to help family members financially, which puts an additional strain on their situation, Jungmann said.

“We also see elderly helping out millennials because … it’s hard to be young and build a life on your own because housing is expensive and healthcare is getting more and more expensive,” she said.

“In the Netherlands, it’s very hard if you’re over 65 to borrow money, so people get into debt. A personal loan is not so common as it is in the U.S. and Canada. So, if you are having money trouble, getting a loan is not an easy solution.”

What the elderly in Canada need

​Meanwhile, seniors in Canada who want objective, unbiased assistance when dealing with their debt are out of luck, according to Schwartz.

“There is no place for Canadians to go for impartial advice,” he said.

“You can go to a bankruptcy trustee, you can go to a credit counselling agency, you can go to your bank but they’re not impartial. They all have an incentive to direct you in a particular path.”

Schwartz said in the U.K., Citizens Advice is an agency that offers people free, confidential and independent advice on how to tackle their debt. However, Jungmann said while similar organizations exist in the Netherlands, the stigma of debt keeps some people away.

“People often don’t go because they feel ashamed that after a life, in which they worked hard, now they are overly indebted,” Jungmann said.

Schwartz said if seniors want to conquer their financial woes, they need to get over the shame of what it means to grapple with it.

“People need to know that there are solutions out there. They don’t need to be ashamed. It’s not the end of the world to be overly indebted. You can’t ignore it. You can’t stick your head in the sand but you need to seek out the options that are available to you.”

He added that while much of the blame for debt tends to be placed on the borrowers, there needs to be stricter regulation of the lenders who are trying to sell people on that debt.

The Carrying Debt to the Grave? The Increasing Indebtedness of the Elderly conference will be held Tuesday at Carleton University’s Richcraft Hall from 8:30 a.m. to 4:00 p.m.

With files from CBC Radio’s Ottawa Morning