Happily, many of us can expect to live a lot longer than our forebears. Leading fund manager Fidelity reckons a couple of 65 year-olds, both in good health, has a 50-50 chance that one of them will reach 93, and a 25 per cent chance that one of them makes 97.

The catch is that staying alive costs money.

And Key Retirement Solutions, a specialist financial adviser (IFA) fixing a fifth of 25,000 equity release loans arranged for homeowners each year, claims that the money worries of the over-60s run wider than council tax.

Key's new survey, of 4,600 households unlocking equity in 2006, found that 63 per cent of over-60s have unsecured debts, with average credit card debts of £7,551.

Their average personal loan is just over £9,000. Those with bank overdrafts average £3,215 in the red. Debts listed under other categories - notably store cards and car finance schemes - average £15,600 per head.

Of course, the survey questioned people already unlocking money from bricks and mortar. But maybe the "golden" generation reaching retirement - blessed by rising house prices, booming shares and possibly the last generation of private sector final salary pensions - is more cash-strapped than all those Saga cruises suggest.

Key is doubling its 60-strong national sales force to meet rising demand. If house prices start to fall, elderly homeowners might cash in some of their chips in bricks and mortar.

Says Dean Mirfin, at Key Retirement: "Increasing numbers of over-60s not only take mortgage debt into retirement, but service loans, credit cards and overdraft debt too.

"Over half the British pensioner population lives on £15,000 or less each year. The most vulnerable pensioners might pay almost half annual income in debt repayments alone."

The typical Key Retirement customer has a home worth £230,000, is approaching 70, and keen to raise £50,000 in cash. Having spent the lump sum taken from their pension pot on retirement, they need more cash to pay for holidays, a new car or house repairs.

From 21 members of the UK equity release industry body, SHIP (Safe Home Income Plans) come nearly 50 schemes: either lifetime mortgages "rolling up" interest to be paid off when the home is eventually sold, or home reversion plans enabling the sale of part of the property value for a sum decided mainly by life expectancy.

But longer lives make equity release more expensive for those in their 60s.

That's why some advisers, including Saga, and Help the Aged, say equity release should only be considered when all the other options are ruled out.

A 65-year-old man owning a £200,000 home entering a home reversion plan would sell 90 per cent of the home for a lump sum of £76,907; by a lifetime mortgage, he could receive a maximum £62,000 with an interest rate of 6.64 per cent.

At 75, the figures look better: £92,000 by home reversion, a maximum £84,000 by lifetime mortgage. But there is less time to enjoy the cash.

In the first quarter of 2007, homeowners unlocked nearly £294 million,the highest Q1 figure recorded so far. Annual withdrawals are running at a rate of £1,169 million.

However, Dean Mirfin says the drawdown mortgage accounts for 40 per cent of all equity release loans, against seven per cent of the total market when they began in the final quarter of 2005.

They offer homeowners a minimum £10,000, on average about £27,000- plus the freedom to get more money whenever it is needed, to a maximum dictated by age and property value.

One specialist lender, Just Retirement, offers a fixed rate loan costing 6.15 per cent for the lifetime of the loan, to a maximum £250,000; subsequent top ups to the initial loan may incur a higher or lower rate of interest.

A good drawdown deal is available from Standard Life, at 6.06 per cent. But the draw-down facility closes after five years.

An obvious alternative to equity release is for homeowners to buy a smaller home, and to invest the excess cash in a savings or managed account to boost income.

Noting that many over-60s have a sizeable lump sum of cash- from a "downsizing" of their home, or an inheritance, or a pension lump sum, fund manager Fidelity has launched a Retirement Income Fund, modelled on its US prototype to defy the notion that nobody should dabble in shares in retirement.

Says Fidelity's David Dunn: "We found that pensioners relying on savings and drawing five per cent per year would eventually run out of cash. The optimum allocation of assets needs an element of equities - and our model showed that a mix of 22 per cent equities, four per cent property, four per cent commodities and the remaining 70 per cent in bonds would survive as well as cash in a less forgiving economic environment.

"Shares have always been seen as too risky for retirement. We think it's time to amend that view."

Ellie Stanton, at Help the Aged Equity Release Advisory Service, says: "About half the people seeking our advice on equity release find a better alternative, but it may suit some people.

"Equity release plainly has a big impact in inheritance, and families should discuss it before anything is signed."