Editors' pick: Originally published Jan. 12.

The notion of a 60-something U.S. adults having to pay off student loans sounds like a joke at first blush.

Unfortunately, it's no laughing matter, as more and more U.S. seniors find themselves burdened with college loan payments, notes a new study from the U.S. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

A "growing number of consumers aged 60 or older are struggling financially to repay student loans," the CFPB says in a new report released in early January. "The majority of these loans were either co-signed or borrowed on behalf of younger family members. From 2005 to 2015, the number of senior citizens affected quadrupled from 700,000 to 2.8 million. The average debt owed by older borrowers also doubled during this time period from $12,000 to $23,500."

Worse, since 2015, nearly 40% of older federal student loan borrowers aged 65 or older were in default, the CFPB adds. "In the worst circumstances, these consumers are foregoing their own regular medical care or partially forfeiting federal benefits such as Social Security to repay student loans," the report adds.

Additional industry data backs up the CFPB report. According to a separate study of home-owning parents and their adult children from LoanDepot.com, an alarmingly high number of older homeowners find themselves paying down their offspring's student loan debt. This from the study:

  • 19% of parents are already using or have used personal loans, primary mortgages, home equity loans and cash-out refinances to pay their adult children's college tuition or student loan debt.
  • 61% of parents say their adult children expect them to help with tuition, while 63% of kids assume aid will come from their moms and dads.
  • The vast majority of parents consider their support for their children's education to be a gift (86%) rather than a loan (5%) or a portion of their inheritance (10%). At the same time, 80% of adult children consider their parents' support to be a gift.

Job one for older parents and grandparents who find themselves saddled with college bills is to figure out the source of the problem and find effective and creative ways to fix it.

"The first thing you have to do is figure out when the problem started: when the loans defaulted and why they weren't paid," says Keven Glancy, marketing manager at Student Loan Resources, a company that helps people with high student loan debt get into the government programs that help decrease that debt.

Glancy says that if the person responsible for paying the student loan can't actually do it, the co-signee needs to get into a forgiveness program as soon as possible." You can't just watch, wait and hope that they can manage to pay after years of failing," he notes. That just builds up the debt and makes it near impossible to pay off, so you need to get in contact with a company that can walk you through the process and get you signed up, or you need to do it yourself. The longer you wait, the worse off you're going to end up being."

Getting some much-needed help from student loan issuers would be of great value to older financial consumers, too, other experts say.

"In many cases, these growing numbers of senior student defaults could be avoided if loan servicers provided better assistance and response to financially challenged consumers," added Whitney Barkley-Denney, a specialist in student lending and state policy counsel at the Center for Responsible Lending. "Student loan income-based repayments or loan modifications should be available to consumers of all ages. It should be the duty of loan servicers to provide timely and clear information on the options available."

If the student loan debt problem really becomes pervasive, prepare to step up your efforts to pay the loan off. 

"Consider downsizing or moving," says Andy Josuweit, chief executive officer at Student Loan Hero. "This can be difficult for some who have lived in a certain community for several years, but it's possible to save a good chunk of money by moving to a smaller home or even retiring out of the country entirely."

You can also try to refinance your home mortgage to free up some extra cash.

"By refinancing to a loan with a lower interest rate, you save a lot of money on interest and you can shorten the amount of time it takes to repay the loan," Josuweit notes. "Many of the borrowers in the CFPB report borrowed the money for their children or grandchildren. Those who took out Parent PLUS loans can refinance the loans in their child's or grandchild's name."

It seems strange that older Americans are a fast-rising demographic slammed by student loan debt, but that's exactly what's happening. If it's happening to you, confront the problem directly, call in professional financial help, and take every avenue possible to get that debt paid off as soon as possible.

After all, and as strange as it sounds, nobody wants to go into retirement still paying off student loan debt.

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