MIAMI - Marie Ginise thought she and her husband, Joseph, had prepared well for retirement. They worked hard to build up their asphalt driveway business, saved a few pennies and eventually moved to Florida from Connecticut to enjoy their golden years.
But when Joseph got sick and died, Marie, 75, realized she could not afford the two-bedroom manufactured home the couple bought in Deerfield Beach, Fla., in 2005. Now, instead of enjoying shuffleboard and card games in her senior community, she's fighting off foreclosure.
"I cry every night when I go to bed," Ginise said. "You work for something your whole life, and then it doesn't turn out like that at all. I don't know if I'm here or there."
Marie Ginise is among the older Americans who owe more on their homes than they're worth after the real estate crash - but with less time to make up the financial loss than those who are younger. An AARP report released this summer, "Nightmare on Main Street: Older Americans and the Mortgage Market Crisis," revealed that:
. About 3.5 million loans held by people older than 50 (or 16 percent of all loans for that group) were underwater as of December.
. The percentage of seriously delinquent mortgage loans increased from 1.1 percent in 2007 to 6 percent in 2011 for people 50 and older.
. The foreclosure rate for people 50 and older also increased, from 0.3 percent in 2007 to 2.9 percent in 2011.
"It's like the end of the American Dream for them," said Gladys?Gerson, a supervising attorney for Coast to Coast Legal Aid of South Florida. "They're very embarrassed that they can't maintain their own home."
Max Rothman, president of the Alliance for Aging in Miami, said he is seeing "more older folks calling in about various issues relating to financial insecurities. It's a symptom of the times."
Older Americans are struggling to make ends meet on nest eggs that are earning paltry returns, but the underlying factors of the mortgage crisis began long before the Great Recession. As housing prices soared, older homeowners took home equity loans and second mortgages on their houses, just as their younger counterparts did - but with less time to weather the financial storm if the monthly payment became unaffordable.
"If you're 65-plus, it's not like you can take a second job to make the payments," said Debra Whitman, AARP's executive vice president for policy. "Your income just doesn't change much. You have a lot fewer options."
The AARP report noted that older Americans are carrying more mortgage debt than ever before. This spells trouble because home equity has often been used to help pay for medical bills or supplement fixed incomes later in life.
Gerson, of Coast to Coast Legal Aid, which represents low- and moderate-income Broward County, Fla., residents, is defending Marie Ginise in foreclosure proceedings. Gerson said there are hundreds of seniors like Ginise who are behind on their mortgage payments, with no hope of catching up. "They get further and further behind," Gerson said.
The hardest hit: low- and middle-income seniors. According to AARP, older middle-class borrowers with incomes ranging from $50,000 to $124,999 accounted for 53 percent of foreclosures in 2011. Borrowers with incomes below $50,000 made up 32 percent of all foreclosures in that age group.
"There are limited things they can do" in the case of a foreclosure, Gerson said. "If they're lucky, maybe they move in with a relative or rent a room somewhere. But most fear that they're going to be stuck in some institution at the end of their years."
Marta L. Carreno, 70, managed to rent an apartment in June after the bank started foreclosure proceedings on her condo in Pembroke Pines, Fla. She was lucky to find a place.
"I know the manager, so I got a break. If I didn't know anybody, I would have had a hard time," she said. "My credit isn't good."
Her dream retirement has turned into a nightmare, she added.
The two-bedroom condo she bought in 2005 for $230,000 is worth less than half that now. Even before her husband, Miguel Angel, died in 2010, the couple had asked for a loan modification. Now without his pension or Social Security, there's no way she can afford to keep it. Instead of fighting the foreclosure, she has decided to let the bank take over her property.
"I live one day at a time," she said, her voice wavering with emotion. "I never thought I would end up this way. I've lost everything."