Seniors' debt a growing concern, says Alberta credit counsellor

·3 min read
An Alberta credit counsellor says that regardless of age or socioeconomic status there is always a way out of debt — but it may involve some tough choices. (Evan Mitsui/CBC - image credit)
An Alberta credit counsellor says that regardless of age or socioeconomic status there is always a way out of debt — but it may involve some tough choices. (Evan Mitsui/CBC - image credit)

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

Indeed, Thiel said she put an 80-year-old woman on a debt repayment program because she was in debt and feared losing her home after a creditor came after her.

"It is all difficult when people are stressed and suffering because debt and mental health are so related, and then physical health, (but) for me, I find the seniors the saddest," said Thiel, a credit counsellor Money Mentors. "This is not what they expected."

Thiel said the not-for-profit agency was busy pre-pandemic.

But during the pandemic, she said, demand for their services slowed as people eased up on their spending and credit agencies started offering deferrals.

As things return to normal — and some creditors become less willing to work with clients — she said demand for their services is picking up again.

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

"We need to sort out assets and debts and income and explore options that they have available to them, make recommendations and sometimes gently guide them to understand what those options are, and what might happen, and some potential changes in their life that they might have to make," said Thiel.

Tough choices

Some seniors who spoke with CBC News at the Kerby Centre, a seniors resource centre in downtown Calgary, talked about the choices they make regularly to keep themselves out of debt and on budget.

Calgarian Joan Anderson, 77, is on a fixed income and said she seeks out places that offer inexpensive services for seniors.

"You make sure you are aware of what's happening in the community to help you and to bring along your neighbour who might need it also," said Anderson.

Anderson said she sold her vehicle last fall because it was costly to gas up and maintain.

Now, she said she walks or takes transit everywhere, and looks for free events to attend.

"Otherwise you sit in your little apartment day after day, bored, or knit," said Anderson.

Another senior, Donna Ellah, said she and her husband park their car most days to save money on gas.

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

"You run around turning off all your lights when you can so you're kind of in the dark," said Ellah.

For Sandra Ayerst, the cost of dental work is worrisome as is rising food costs.

Paul Daly/CBC
Paul Daly/CBC

"You just do the best you can and go without if you can't meet it for that month," said Ayerst.

Education and advice

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

"It's quite desperate for some people and there are some really difficult life decisions that some people are being forced to have to consider in terms of living and living in their homes still," said Thiel.

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

Thiel said it's important to reach out for help before using high-interest loans or credit cards to manage debt, which can only worsen matters.

She said regardless of age or socioeconomic status there is always a way out of debt — but it may involve some tough choices.