WASHINGTON — Economic and retirement policy experts presented a gloomy picture for baby boomers Wednesday, warning that rising debt loads and health care costs plus recession-wracked savings accounts will cause many older Americans to see their quality of life decline in their “golden” years.

Illustrating the challenges facing a graying nation, panelists and lawmakers spent much of Wednesday’s meeting discussing reasons for concern as the baby boomer generation enters retirement. They made it clear that addressing the issue will take a combination of politically difficult policy changes and social changes.

“We’re coming to some tough conclusions here,” said Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., chairman of the Senate Special Committee on Aging. “Work longer is one conclusion. That certainly wasn’t the way it was in the previous generation.”

That is already a reality for a growing segment of the population. The number of Americans age 65 or older who reported working rose 64 percent between January 2003 and January 2013, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. More than 7.4 million Americans age 65 or older were still in — or had returned to — the workforce last January.

At the same time, AARP reports that roughly 1 in 3 retired Mainers rely entirely on Social Security for their income — a troubling statistic when the average benefit is less than $15,000 a year, said, U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine.

“It is hard to imagine stretching those dollars far enough to pay the bills,” said Collins, the top Republican on the committee. “Certainly a ‘comfortable retirement’ appears to be out of the question.”

The stock market declines hit hard for most households with retirement investments such as 401(k) accounts but are exacting a bigger toll on retirees unable to recoup the losses over time. Americans are not saving enough as it is, however.

In 2010, the retirement accounts for households of people ages 55 to 64 had a median value of about $100,000, which would generate a monthly payment beginning at age 65 of $500, said Richard Johnson, director of the program on retirement policy at The Urban Institute.

A general rule is that retirees should aim to earn about 75 percent of the pre-retirement income, he said. The percentage of retirees unable to achieve that threshold is expected to continue rise in the coming decades, driven largely by health care costs.

Massachusetts native Joanne Jacobsen, 63, offered her situation as an example of how some seniors can struggle financially even after doing “all of the right things” to prepare for retirement.

Jacobsen had a pension, enrolled in her company’s savings plan, bought stocks and received financial planning advice. But her former company — which laid her off nine months before she would have reached her full-retirement mark of 30 years — is discontinuing health and life insurance coverage for retirees, forcing her into much more costly plans.

Those rising health care costs and other expenses resulted in her sinking into “five figures” of debt even as she continues to work.

“There will be no thoughts of ever really retiring, and I will be working into the foreseeable future or until my health holds out,” said Jacobsen, who now lives in Florida.

Jacobsen is among the growing number of people reaching retirement age deeper in debt, according to Olivia Mitchell, director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Pension Research Council.

The percentage of people ages 51 to 62 who were in debt increased marginally — from 64 percent to 70 percent — between 1991 and 2008; but the amount of average debt more than quadrupled, from $6,200 to $28,300, Mitchell said.

“This is important because boomers retiring in the next several years are more likely to carry this debt into retirement compared to previous cohorts,” Mitchell said. “And since debt payments typically rise faster than the interest rates that retirees can earn on their investments, people will likely be more vulnerable during retirement.”

Speakers recommended a variety of ways to address the issue. They included improved financial literacy and planning both for seniors and younger Americans, mandatory participation in life insurance programs, encouraging more small businesses to offer retirement savings plans and automatic enrollment for new employees, and changes to Social Security.

The latter is one of the “third rails” of politics, so Nelson appeared hesitant when he asked the panel about changing the way cost-of-living adjustments are calculated for Social Security.

President Barack Obama infuriated some in his own party earlier this year when his budget proposal included switching to a “chained” consumer price index calculation. Chained CPI assumes that as prices change for commonly purchased goods, consumers will change their buying habits. As a result, the cost-of-living adjustments under chained CPI are typically lower than under the current system.

Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W. Va., said many have shunned chained CPI, so he suggested exploring other avenues. One option, he said, is having better-off Social Security recipients forgoing some cost-of-living adjustments to ensure lower-income people receive more money.

“We need to be talking about this, because there are certain people in my state that can’t make it,” Manchin said.

Kevin Miller — 317-6256

[email protected]

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