It's not just millennials who are burdened with student loans. 

A growing number of older Americans are having their Social Security income garnished by the government to pay off student debt that is often decades old and in default.

The government, which guarantees student loans, is taking hundreds of dollars each month from people 50 and older who are getting Social Security benefits for disability or retirement. That move is pushing many seniors into poverty, according to a report published Tuesday by the Government Accountability Office.

This growing practice has left many baby boomers and other seniors feeling they have few options. But there are, in fact, some things you can do to ease the burden, including getting better repayment terms, having the debt reduced, or even getting it forgiven (find out how below).

The loans were taken out—often decades ago—by people seeking midcareer training to land a better job or to help pay for their children’s education. Though private creditors typically can’t seize Social Security, a law passed in 1996 granted government agencies the right to collect on debts by “offsetting” Social Security.

The amount being seized is relatively small—less than 10 percent of the $4.5 billion collected annually on defaulted loans is taken from Social Security income—but the number of people it affects is up sharply. 

About 114,000 Americans have had Social Security income seized, up 440 percent from 2002 and up 540 percent for people over 65. The number is expected to continue growing as more baby boomers enter retirement with student loan debt.  About 7 million Americans over age 50 have student loan debt.

“This is something that was not common till recently," says Kate Lang, a senior staff attorney at Justice in Aging, a nonprofit that provides legal protections for low-income seniors. "The rising cost of higher education means that the debt itself is much larger and it’s much more difficult to pay it off over time. What’s really troubling is that there will be more and more people in this situation.”

Americans owe some $1.3 trillion in student loans, and an increasing number are defaulting. It’s a dire circumstance to be in but it’s not without remedy, under both the current system and longer term with legislative changes.

What You Can Do

There are ways to get relief from the seizure, but few seniors know their options, or they find the process difficult to see through. Here are some options.

Apply for a disability waiver. Seniors who are disabled with a condition not expected to improve may qualify to have their loans canceled with a total and permanent disability discharge. Though the process can be onerous—such as the need to document it annually—more than one-third of people in default were able to pay off or cancel their debt with this option. More than half of borrowers having their Social Security seized are on disability payments. One caveat: The amount forgiven is considered income and you will owe taxes.

Apply for financial hardship. You may request a reduction or suspension of the garnishment of your Social Security because of financial hardship. It is up to the Department of Education whether they will grant it.  You can call the Department of Education to request a suspension, then follow up with the documentation needed for them to review.

Consolidate your loan. You could get out of default by converting your defaulted federal loan into a federal consolidation loan. You then have the option of doing an income-based repayment plan, which can make the payments more manageable and could reduce them to less than what is taken from Social Security.

Rehab your loan. People in default can “rehabilitate” loans by working out a payment plan with the Department of Education. This also doesn’t erase your debt but depending on your income, your monthly payment under a loan rehabilitation agreement could be as low as $5.

These options don’t apply to private loans, though some private lenders may work with you to adjust payments. The National Consumer Law Center’s Student Loan Borrower Assistance Project and Justice in Aging provide advice and resources for people struggling with payments.

Longer Term Solutions

Consumer advocates have long called for legislative changes, and the GAO in its report recommended some of the same solutions. That includes:

Factor in cost of living. The government can’t take the first $750 a month of a person’s Social Security, but that amount leaves seniors with as little as $9,000 a year in benefits, an amount that has never been adjusted for inflation. The GAO recommends indexing the $9,000 to increases in inflation.

Clarify rules. The Department of Education should make the requirements needed to qualify for TPD and financial hardship clearer and simplify the process for applying.

Consumer advocates are also calling for a 10-year limit on debt collection. They way it stands now, an 80- or 90-year-old on Social Security could still get Social Security seized for loans that are 30 or 40 years old.

Though there isn’t bipartisan support, the issue has Congressional backing from prominent Democrats, including Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Sen. Claire McCaskill, who called for the GAO to do its investigation. In a statement, McCaskill said “We could have hundreds of thousands of American seniors living in poverty due to garnished Social Security benefits if this trend continues, and we shouldn’t allow that to happen.”

McCaskill and Warren have co-sponsored a bill to end Social Security garnishment for student loans.