Alberta credit advisor says seniors’ debt is a growing concern

Whether it’s the cost of groceries, utility bills, pump prices or rising interest rates, Calgary credit counselor Shari Thiel says something has caused more seniors to fall into debt and seek help in recent months.

In fact, Till said she put an 80-year-old woman into a debt repayment program because she was in debt and was afraid to lose her home after a creditor came after her.

“It’s hard when people are stressed and suffering because debt and mental health are so tightly linked, and then physical health,[but]for me, I find older people sadder,” said Thiel, credit counselor Money Mentors. “This is not what they expected.”

Thiel said the nonprofit agency was busy in the pre-pandemic period.

But during the pandemic, demand for their services slowed, as people cut back on their spending and credit agencies began offering deferments.

With things returning to normal – and some creditors becoming less willing to work with clients – she said demand for their services is rising again.

In the past two months, the agency has been taking more calls from seniors, especially those with fixed incomes, to help them get back on track.

“We need to sort through assets, debt and income and explore the options available to them, make recommendations and sometimes gently guide them to understand what those options are, what might happen, and some of the potential changes in their lives that might happen to them,” Thiel said.

tough choices

Some of the seniors who spoke with CBC News at the Kirby Center, a resource center for seniors in downtown Calgary, spoke about the choices they regularly make to keep themselves out of debt and within budget.

Calgarian Joan Anderson, 77, has a steady income and said she’s looking for places that offer inexpensive services for seniors.

“You have to make sure you are aware of what is going on in the community to help you out and to bring your neighbor who might need it as well,” Anderson said.

Anderson said she sold her car last fall because it was expensive to fuel and maintain.

Now, she said she walks or takes transportation everywhere, looking for free events to attend.

“Otherwise you would be sitting in your little apartment day in and day out, bored or bonded,” Anderson said.

Donna Ellah, a senior, said she and her husband park most days to save money on petrol.

She said she saves money by cutting back on groceries, especially meat and fresh produce, and electricity.

“You go around and turn off all the lights when you can so you’re kind of in the dark,” Ella said.

For Sandra Ayerst, the cost of dental treatment is as worrying as the rising costs of food.

Some seniors who spoke with CBC News say they have to make choices to wean themselves out of debt and budgeting. (Paul Daly/CBC)

“You just do the best you can and go without it if you can’t make it that month,” Ayerst said.

Education and advice

Thiel said her job is to educate people, provide a path forward, and provide legal protection for them from creditors, if necessary.

“It’s just so desperate for some people and there are some really tough life decisions that some people have to think about in terms of living and living in their own home,” Till said.

She said selling their home is one option, while bringing in a roommate is another that may offset costs and provide companionship.

It’s important to reach out for help before using high-interest loans or credit cards to manage debt, Thiel said, which only makes matters worse.

No matter age or socioeconomic status, she said, there is always a way to get out of debt — but it can involve some tough choices.