10/24/2012 10:26 am ET Updated Dec 24, 2012

Older Adults Should Be Able to Retire With Dignity and Security

This week is National Save for Retirement Week, an important reminder of the importance of financial planning for retirement for all Americans.

Save for Retirement Week also provides us with an important opportunity to reflect upon the increasingly untenable financial situation that many older adults are facing. Recent articles in The Boston Globe and The New York Times have highlighted the struggles older adults are encountering in trying to retire, and risks that some face when they are sold reverse mortgage products that are not right for them.

Older adults have been disproportionately harmed by the financial crisis. This has made financial planning and aging in place even more challenging. According to the Center for Housing Policy, 80 percent of older adults are homeowners. Millions of seniors are underwater on their mortgages as a result of the housing crisis, meaning they owe more on their mortgages than their homes are currently worth. Hundreds of thousands more have lost their homes to foreclosure. Scammers have made this situation even worse by targeting older adults with foreclosure rescue scams and other schemes.

According to the National Council on Aging, more than 23 million Americans ages 60 and up are living at or below 250 percent of the federal poverty level, which is $27,925 per year for a single person. Meanwhile, the Social Security and Medicare programs are under attack. Weakened Social Security and Medicare programs would put more costs on the backs of seniors and renege on the promise of those programs. Proposals to privatize Social Security would put retirement funds at the mercy of the same erratic market that wiped out many pension funds in the financial crisis. This fundamental alteration of Social Security into "Social Insecurity" must not be allowed to happen.

And in addition to these problems and threats, employer-sponsored defined benefit and even defined contribution retirement plans are on the decline, taking away a key part of the U.S. retirement system and increasing uncertainty.

It is important to establish that these issues aren't just relevant for today's older adults. All Americans should ask: What will a compromised Social Security or Medicare program or the absence of a meaningful pension mean for me when I wish to retire?

All of us are seniors in waiting. As a nation we must be forward-thinking about policies and practices that will allow Americans to retire and live with dignity and economic security. This is an intergenerational issue.

One top priority today must be to ensure that older adults and all Americans have financial education. It is a sad fact that older adults are frequently targeted with products that are not right for them, and that decrease their economic security. Education is a crucial step to prevent older adults from being harmed by predatory practices from the financial services industry and financial abuse from scammers.

At our organization, the National Community Reinvestment Coalition, we work to empower, organize and assist older adults through the National Neighbors Silver Program. Through this initiative, community organizations and older adult community activists and ambassadors are doing grassroots outreach to other older adults to increase awareness and financial literacy. Many other nonprofit organizations and government agencies are also engaged in important work for and on behalf of older adults. The recently established Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, and its Office of Financial Protection for Older Americans have a very important role to play in preventing wealth-stripping from our nation's older adults, and protecting them from abusive practices. Other regulators have roles to play as well.

It is critical for us to work to empower older adults with knowledge, financial literacy, and financial planning tools so that they can live with dignity and economic security. It is also critical for our nation to make a renewed commitment to building an environment where aging in place and secure retirement is feasible for all Americans. Aging is a constant we can all expect, and it is in our mutual interest to address these issues together.