The Great Recession saw unemployment rates double and the housing bust that proved far stronger and lasted much longer than anyone had expected. Through it all, retirement savings plans took a major hit.

The economy is improving now. But for baby boomers who can see the finish line of retirement in the not-so-far-off distance, the race is on to rebuild - or start over - with their retirement plans.

The clock is ticking - loudly. Finding work still isn't easy. Neither is finding safe investments with reasonable returns.

For Vilma Hart, 58, an unexpected layoff during the recession undermined her best-laid retirement plans.

"It was a rude awakening," said Hart, a former corporate trainer and state caseload manager who was let go by the state in 2008. "I could not find a job for a year and a half. I exhausted all my retirement savings."

Hart took a part-time job with the AARP Foundation in 2010 so she could scrape by with her bills and also watch over her elderly mother. She hopes to find full-time work, but also understands the challenges ahead. She has nothing saved for retirement now, and hasn't yet been able to start saving again.

"I have to adapt," she said. "I thought I had my ducks in a row but it didn't work out."

Hart is among the 2 out of every 3 baby boomers who are in some kind of unfavorable retirement situation.

Surveys spell out in detail the depth of the problem. About 63 percent of displaced workers during the recession dipped into their retirement savings to pay bills, according to a 2012 study by the nonprofit Transamerica Center for Retirement Studies. Middle-aged workers were most at risk, the survey found. Workers in their 40s and 50s had only a median $2,300 left in their retirement accounts.

Investment earnings for Americans 65 and over accounted for 10 percent of their income on average in 2006 Now, it's only 6 percent, according to a separate AARP survey of 2011 trends, the most-recent year available.

"This is going to be a huge story for years and years," Florida AARP spokesman Dave Bruns said. Many boomers "are in a world of hurt. You have to wonder what their options are. Many say, 'I'm going to work until I drop.' "

Ken Viviano, a 57-year-old construction contractor, has struggled for the past six years after the housing boom went bust.

He was forced to retool his business during the housing collapse, trying to get by on individual kitchen and bathroom remodeling projects for homeowners. It was all he could do to pay his everyday bills and get his kids through college. During that time, he hasn't been able to save anything for retirement.

"You can't put anything away," Viviano said. "The game has really changed."

His business is doing well now, but he worries about physically being able to continue with so much manual labor at his age, since he can't afford to hire other employees to help him. "I've got issues with my feet, my arms," he said. "I don't know if I can keep doing this for 10 more years."

Sharon Hallback is 65 years old. She went back to school late in life and has two master's degrees. She still can't find the right full-time job to help get her back on her feet.

"They say I am overqualified," said Hallback, who has stopped telling some prospective employers about her degrees.

Hallback was a counselor who was hired by a private company to make home visits to help special needs children. But in 2009, her mother became gravely ill and Hallback ultimately lost her job because she refused to give up caring for her mother. "I will never regret what I did."

She went on Social Security at 62 to bring in a monthly check. Her retirement savings accounts had been depleted by putting her three children through college.

"I was a single parent," Hallback said. "I had to pull out my money."

She was able to find work at a juvenile program but has struggled since then to get by. She considers herself lucky that she got into an AARP program, working at a state workforce agency in Hollywood, Fla. Even with her Social Security benefits, making ends meet has not been easy. And saving for retirement? Out of the question.

Her warning to other baby boomers: If you think you want to get a part-time job to supplement your Social Security, realize it may be harder than you think to snag one.

"There are so many people looking for work - even part-time work," Hallback said. "It didn't use to be that way. But now there's so much competition."

To get to a comfortable retirement level, many baby boomers will have to reinvent themselves by working longer and resuming their saving - even if it means not financially helping their children and further shaving off living expenses, said financial planners and analysts who work with older workers.

Most who lost jobs will have to rework their budgets to still save for retirement with smaller paychecks, said Florida's AARP director Jeff Johnson.

"Chances are they are going into a much lower salary than they had before," Johnson said.

Some boomers will also have to adjust to the new reality of more companies eliminating their 401(k) contributions to workers' accounts, said Boca Raton, Fla., financial planner Mari Adam.

But boomers can't use that as an excuse not to save, Adam said. "They don't save enough now," she added. They especially must not help their children through college if that jeopardizes their retirement savings, Adam said.

"Their kids can get loans," she said.

The key is to not to go through all the savings within a few years of retiring, added Craig Copeland, an analyst with the Employee Benefit Research Institute.

Some laid-off boomers who have managed to hold onto some savings can retire as long as they budget and watch their spending, said Plantation, Fla., financial planner Ben Tobias.

"While comfortable, their retirement won't be as comfortable as planned," he said. "It's happened to a lot of people."

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