Janie raised five children as a single mother and even managed to put some money away for retirement.

That money's gone now. Disability and a late-in-life divorce left her swimming in debt. She was forced to retire at 52, years earlier than she had planned, and she now lives on a disability check of $694 a month.

"I get so overwhelmed by medical and credit card bills," Janie wrote. "After paying for necessities, I have nothing left over for food or personal items. This is why my credit cards are maxed out."

By contrast, Bill wasn't forced to retire early. But he did enter retirement with a significant amount of credit card debt. At 66, he's wondering if he should tap his retirement savings to pay those bills.

A.R. is 68 and facing nearly $200,000 in student loan debt. The amount she originally borrowed for a master's degree snowballed after years of deferments while she tried to build a business -- a business she finally closed to care for her ailing mother and husband.

"It's overwhelming and scary to me how much the interest has accumulated," A.R. said. "There is no way I will ever be able to pay this tremendous (debt)."

The debt generation grows old
Debt and retirement aren't supposed to go together. We envision older people living thriftily in paid-for homes, clipping coupons and eschewing credit card debt.

While that describes plenty of older people, it doesn't capture the whole picture:

* Nearly six out of 10 Americans ages 65 to 74 have some kind of debt, according to the U.S. Federal Reserve's Survey of Consumer Finances. The most common kinds of debt include mortgages (32.1%), credit card debt (31.9%) and instalment loans (27.5%). The number carrying debt drops to four in 10 for people 75 and older (18.7% have mortgages, 23.5% have credit card debt and 13.9% have instalment loans).

* Some seniors carry huge debt loads relative to their incomes. Nearly 16% of U.S. households headed by 65- to-74-year-olds said their debt payments exceeded 40% of their incomes. Nearly 14% of those 75 and older were in the same bind. Among other age groups, the percentage that devotes 40% or more of their incomes to debt ranges from about 13% in the 34-to-44 age bracket to 16% for those 45 to 54.

* The bankruptcy rate for people 55 and older soared from 1991 to 2007, according to a study by the Consumer Bankruptcy Project. People 55 and older accounted for 8% of bankruptcies in 1991 but 22% of the cases in 2007. Bankruptcy rates for people 75 and up more than quadrupled.

"When I started doing this 20 years ago, it was very unusual to talk to a senior who had problems with debt. They avoided it like the plague," said debt and collections expert Gerri Detweiler, co-author of the e-book "Debt Collection Answers." "There's a new group (of seniors) now that's more comfortable with credit and more likely to turn to credit when the money doesn't stretch."

Recession pushes many over edge
People who are still employed have a shot at paying back big debts by working more hours, taking a second job or delaying retirement. Once retired, though, fixed incomes often can't cover rising medical costs and debt payments from years of easy credit.

"It becomes harder and harder to keep up with the payments without affecting your lifestyle, especially with variable-rate debt," said financial planner Bonnie Kirchner, the author of "Who Can You Trust With Your Money?" "Many (people) are entering retirement with credit card debt, and it puts them in the position where they've lost control. They're now under the control of the credit card companies."

The recession has almost certainly made matters worse as job losses have soared, pushing people into retirement prematurely. Tightened credit standards, higher interest rates and the loss of home equity are sending more seniors over the edge.

"These economically burdened seniors go without heat in the winter and freeze, or without air conditioning in a steamy summer and die, or miss meals or eat dog food to survive," said debt expert Steve Rhode, who founded a credit-counselling agency and who now provides advice at How to Get Out of Debt. "When it comes to seniors, debt kills."