Jul. 20--Janet and Benjamin Thompson found themselves in the midst of a financial nightmare: an adjustable-rate mortgage about to go up for the second time, credit-card debt and rising medical expenses.
     Throw in the nonstop harassing calls from creditors determined to collect money they didn't have and "it got to the point where there was nothing else to do. We had to start over," said Mrs. Thompson, 62.
     In 2007, the Baltimore, Ohio, couple made the difficult decision to file for bankruptcy. It was the only way, Mrs. Thompson said, to save their house.
     The Thompsons are part of a growing national trend. A recent study found that among all those who file for bankruptcy, the percentage who are 55 or older has more than doubled since 1991.
     "They are the most vulnerable group, and as the economy gets worse, they get slammed," said Deborah Thorne, an Ohio University sociology professor and the lead author of the study funded by the AARP and Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
     In 1991, 8.2 percent of all those who filed were 55 or older; in 2007, this number jumped to 22.3 percent, according to the study, which surveyed 2,435 people who declared bankruptcy during late January and early February 2007.
     Throw in the fact that the overall bankruptcy rate is rising, and this means more older people are in financial turmoil. Through the first six months of 2008, bankruptcy filings are up 17.3 percent compared with the same period last year, according to the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Southern District of Ohio.
     Experts say the reasons more seniors are filing for bankruptcy are credit-card debt, bad refinancing deals, rising medical expenses, insufficient retirement savings and the overall state of the economy.
     "Seniors are definitely hurt the most," said Scott Needleman, a Columbus attorney who has filed bankruptcy papers for scores of seniors. "With their care needs, medical situations, being on fixed incomes, being hooked into rotten refinancing deals, gas up to $4 a gallon, and food prices going up, they're being crushed."
     The Thompsons had many of the problems Needleman listed.
     They signed a mortgage they didn't fully understand, and their monthly payment jumped $350 and was set to go up $300 more when they filed for bankruptcy. Their costs for health-care insurance, through Mr. Thompson's union (he is a retired carpenter), more than doubled.
     "I wish we were 65, then we could have Medicare and get some relief there," Mrs. Thompson said.
     They tried juggling their expenses between several credit cards, only to incur late fees that triggered drastic jumps in their interest rate, putting them further into debt.
     "Often older people are more trusting and gullible and are more likely to be taken advantage of by the credit-card industry," Thorne said. "They don't understand late fees and fines and how their interest rates can jump up."
     The average retiree, she added, needs $200,000 in savings just for medical expenses and "for most people, that's not happening."
     At the Columbus office of Consumer Credit Counseling Service, the number of older people asking for help is on the rise.
     The average age of those seeking financial advice has risen the past several years and is up to 46, said Bill Staler, vice president and community outreach director of the Columbus office of CCCS, which offers financial counseling services in eight states.
     "And 24 percent of the people we see are over 56," he said. "This is the first generation to retire who aren't adverse to debt, and now they're retiring with mortgage debt, credit-card debt, something our parents and grandparents wouldn't do."
     For people on a fixed income, Staler said, a "life event" such as a serious illness or the need to support a parent or child can trigger a downward spiral that leads to financial ruin.
     "In the right situation, bankruptcy is the right tool," he said. "Medical bills are the classic example, and they can often be discharged when you declare bankruptcy and in most cases, your house and car (are) protected."
     Needleman has been an observer of bankruptcy trends over the years. Ten years ago, middle-class couples with two or three kids were declaring bankruptcy. Then college students with massive credit-card debt began showing up at his office.
     Now he sees a growing number of seniors.
     "I'm seeing single women who are 80 and their husbands died," he said. "It's absolutely the saddest thing I've ever seen."
     After what they've been through the past few years, the Thompsons are determined to stay on the financial straight and narrow. Bankruptcy saved their house, and they are living within their means, on a budget and avoiding debt.
     "We don't even have a credit card," Mrs. Thompson said.
     swartenberg@dispatch.com


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