And the prospect of things getting better seems remote. On Dec. 3, 2012, Capital One published research that suggests that more than a third of Americans are currently not saving for their retirements.

Credit card debt the biggest contributory factor

For his 2010 study, The Rise in Elder Bankruptcy Filings and Failure of U.S. Bankruptcy Law, Professor John A. E. Pottow of the University of Michigan Law School asked thousands of people who'd filed for bankruptcy about their experiences. More seniors (two-thirds of them) identified credit card debt -- or, rather, the fees and interest on their credit card debt -- as a contributing factor to their problems than any other cause.

Furthermore, those seniors identified it more frequently than those in younger age groups. They also owed more. Based on his findings, Prof. Pottow calculated that, in 2007, those filers 65 and over likely owed on average $27,213 in credit card debt, while the same figure for those under 65 was $15,499.

Causes of seniors' debt

Of course, plenty of seniors have only themselves to blame for their debt. In November 2010, CESI Debt Solutions, a national nonprofit, published the results of a small-scale nationwide survey that asked retirees about what first got them into financial trouble. A significant number acknowledged factors such as leisure activities, entertainment and travel. But many more had less frivolous reasons:
  • 53 percent, by far the largest group, cited medical expenses. Buying medication/filling prescriptions was especially important.
  • 28 percent said they first went into debt to buy food or groceries.
  • 26 percent had to borrow initially to cover funeral costs.

The Victorians used to differentiate between the deserving and undeserving poor. Maybe it's time we saw indebtedness, especially among seniors, in a similar way, and perhaps even summoned some empathy for those who were forced to borrow to live -- or to bury their dead. This time round, Glenn, it might not lead to genocide.

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