The student debt crisis is colliding with the retirement crisis in the U.S. New data shows that older Americans are the fastest-growing group of student loan borrowers, often taking on debt to help finance college for their children and grandchildren and then struggling to make payments.

During the last 10 years, the number of older education loan borrowers has quadrupled to 2.8 million people, and the amount of debt they’ve taken on has nearly doubled, from $12,000 to $23,500, according to a new report by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which examined student loan complaints by Americans age 60 and older.

Many of these older borrowers are living on fixed incomes and carry other debts into retirement, including mortgage, credit card, and auto debt—threatening their financial security later in life, according to the CFPB. 

Three-quarters of older borrowers took out student loans to help pay for family members’ college expenses while the rest took out student loans to finance their own education. Among borrowers 65 and older with federal loans, nearly 40 percent were in default.

“The report clearly demonstrates that student loan debt is an intergenerational issue,” says Seth Frotman, the CFPB’s student loan ombudsman.

The rising cost of education is forcing families to take on more debt to pay for college. Cuts in public funding have pushed schools to raise tuition over the past few decades, while the federal government has provided aid that mostly comes in the form of loans, not grants, to help families pay for college, says Suzanne Martindale, a staff attorney at Consumer Reports who works on student debt issues. Private lenders have helped fill the gaps, often with high-interest loans that have rigid terms.

“This report makes clear that the education debt crisis and the retirement crisis in this country are very closely linked,” says Martindale.

How Older Borrowers Are Hurt

Older Americans have many of the same problems as younger student borrowers, including difficulty getting information about their loans, accessing more affordable repayment plans, or racking up late fees because of servicer errors.

But the consequences can be more dire later in life for people who are already behind on saving for retirement, who carry other big debt such as mortgages, or who are on fixed incomes.

“Older American can be more financially fragile,” says Stacy Canan, assistant director of the CFPB’s Office for Older Americans. “Fewer have traditional pensions, more are relying on Social Security and carrying a lot more debt than they ever have. All of those factors together make many older people vulnerable to a financial shock.”

Older borrowers are also more likely to have physical ailments or cognitive impairments as they age, making it even harder to unravel problems.

One common complaint the CFPB found is that debt collectors sometimes threaten to take payments for student loans out of Social Security payments when the primary borrower defaults. That happens even though federal benefits are generally protected from debt collection on private loans.

Adding insult to injury: Those who default on federal education loans can have a portion of their Social Security benefits and other assets taken to repay their student loans.

Perhaps the scariest finding from the CFPB: Older borrowers are more likely than those without student debt to skip on necessary healthcare, such as prescription medicines or doctor visits, because they cannot afford it.

What to Do If You’re Struggling

Student loan servicers, who handle processing payments, are a critical link for borrowers because they are the main point of contact. But borrowers often get bad information or have difficulty fixing servicer problems, problems the CFPB has been documenting over the past several years. If you are thinking of co-signing a loan for a family member or having trouble with existing loans, here’s what you should do.

Seek a payment plan to lower your monthly bill. If you have a federal student loan and your income changes—say you retire or lose your job—you can qualify for an income-based repayment plan that can make the loan more affordable or even suspend payments. For many of the most financially vulnerable, they could and should be paying zero dollars because their income is so low,” says Frotman.

Understand your rights and responsibilities as a co-signer. Before you co-sign a loan, make sure you understand the terms because if the primary borrower can't make the payments, you'll be responsible. Factor in whether you can afford to pay the loan and whether you’ll be able to cover payments down the road when your income is lower or you’re retired. “There’s a real possibility you’ll be on the hook to repay that loan,” says Canan. As a co-signer, you can request information about the loan, just as a primary borrower can. By doing this you can see whether the borrower is keeping up payments before the issue begins to affect your credit.

Know how to protect your Social Security income. Debt collectors generally cannot take federal benefits such as Social Security in order to repay a private loan. The federal government, however, does have the right to collect on loans it guarantees by taking a portion of your Social Security. But if you have financial hardship or a disability, you may be able to get the payment reduced or waived.  For more information on those options, visit the Department of Education's Federal Student Aid website.  

File a complaint. If you’re experiencing any of these problems with your student loan lender or servicer, Frotman say you should submit a complaint to the CFPB and it can help you get a timely response from your servicer. If you’re having trouble managing your student loan debt, use the CFPB’s Repay Student Debt tool to learn more about your repayment options.