Debt is on the rise among older Americans, and many are borrowing at high risk, said a new study from Boston College’s Center for Retirement Research.

“But the characteristics of these high-risk borrowers vary a lot,” the paper argued, and so do the possible solutions.

Written by research economists Anqi Chen and Siyan Liu, along with Alicia Munnell, director of the Center and professor of management sciences at Boston College’s Carroll School of Management, the report noted that some of these indebted retirees have the resources to manage their debt while others don’t.

Consequently, some would benefit from financial counseling on topics such as the risks of excessive credit card spending or how to manage mortgage debt. Improved disclosure requirements from lenders would also help this group.

But of those with few resources, who struggle with essential expenses, the report explained, financial education would provide only “limited help.” They need “more resources,” the study said, “perhaps through broader access to means-tested programs like SSI,” referring to Supplemental Security Income, a federal benefits program for those with low income and little savings.

“The discussion around retired borrowers has typically treated them as one group,” said Chen, who is also assistant director of savings research at the Center, in an email interview. “However, we didn't think all older borrowers were putting their retirement finances in danger.”

The reasons households might take on debt can differ, according to the report. It separated out borrowers who are financially savvy and who, for example, took advantage of low interest rates, from those who are truly financially vulnerable in retirement. Those in the latter group are not monolithic, though. They are at high risk for different reasons, the research found.

“They have very different characteristics,” said Chen in the interview.

Understanding these diverse characteristics is essential for developing effective policies to help older households who are struggling with debt, said the study.

“The intended audience [of the study] is researchers, consumer advocates, financial educators, and policymakers alike,” added Chen in the interview. “Distinguishing financially savvy borrowers from high-risk borrowers is important for understanding who we are actually targeting, instead of lumping all older borrowers into one group.”

Before you can propose solutions, she said, you have to understand the various characteristics of the borrowers.

“No one-size-fits-all solution exists,” is how the research paper put it. It called for policymakers to develop “tailored solutions” for specific needs.

The largest group of retirees in debt, according to the research, consists of those who are struggling to meet basic needs. The report suggested that strengthening SSI could provide “a lifeline” for this vulnerable population. The current SSI benefit is less than poverty-level income, said the report.

At the same time, the roster of those who qualify for Social Security’s “special minimum benefit” for low lifetime earners has dwindled over the past three decades from some 200,000 to roughly 25,000, according to the report. This, too, could be expanded, it said.

The next largest group is those who simply overspend or don’t understand how credit card debt and high interest rates can accumulate. They would benefit from traditional financial counseling, said the report. “Legislation requiring credit card issuers to provide better information to consumers could also help,” it added.

A third group has excessive mortgage debt, according to the research. They might benefit from refinancing their mortgage, or simply moving to a smaller home. They could also benefit from guidance about the value of paying down the mortgage before retirement.

“A common question is whether retirees should pay off their debt or their mortgage before they retire,” said Chen in the interview. “This study shows that, for the majority of retirees, their debt is a burden in retirement. For households who have the means, prioritizing paying off their credit card debt and making sure they have emergency savings will be beneficial. Downsizing might be another option, if housing payments take up a large portion of retirement income.”

The final contingent identified in the study is what it called “wealthy spenders”—those who simply need to rein in their borrowing. “Many in this group have a second home,” the report stated, “so selling it is one way to manage their debt burden.” They are the least vulnerable, but good financial advice would probably help them change their habits before they become more at risk.

“Understanding the different characteristics of high-risk borrowers is important for developing targeted solutions for the different groups,” said Chen in the interview. “The main point is that older borrowers are not one homogeneous group, so understanding their different characteristics is important for developing policy.”