After months and months of worsening economic news, America’s seniors still have a cautious optimism about their financial futures. Learn how a talented advisor can help them find the light at the end of the tunnel.

Editor’s note: This annual survey was once again conducted for Senior Market Advisor by The Boomer Project and its associated partner, the Southeastern Institute for Research. The Boomer Project is a Richmond, Va.-based marketing research and consulting company focusing on baby boomers and marketing, started in 2003 by Matt Thornhill.

2009′s study was taken among 308 adults aged 60 and older, of which 71 percent were between 60 and 69–a group which includes the first wave of retiring baby boomers, who are now facing a whole new set of unexpected economic challenges. The results came from across the entire country, from a predominantly affluent survey group (68 percent say their assets, minus their home, exceed $100,000) who are, for the most part, already retired or moving into retirement.

Those looking back on 2009 from some imaginary future perch will probably remember it as a time of economic challenge and turmoil, a sentiment that gripped the country in a way that hasn’t been felt since the Great Depression.

With America’s ongoing financial crises as a backdrop, this year’s Senior Survey addressed the attitudes and beliefs of a generation facing some unusually poignant challenges. After working their entire lifetimes and preparing for a comfortable retirement, many seniors are now finding their nest eggs depleted and their plans derailed. Like everyone else in the United States, they’re emotional about their financial plight; many will have to start saving all over again despite having saved their whole lives.

As our survey discovered, in the midst of all of that fear and confusion, there are some encouraging signs–seniors remain more than cautiously optimistic about the future, and a large percentage of those who took part say they still feel confident they will still be able to enjoy a comfortable retirement.

Most importantly, the survey shows a tremendous opportunity for advisors: More than 60 percent of affluent seniors (approximately 2.6 million people) are heading into retirement without the help and guidance of a financial professional, preferring their own judgment or that of a relative to a skilled advisor. According to Thornhill, that may be the biggest takeaway of all. What follows are the Boomer Project’s key findings, and some of the ways you can integrate their research into building your business.

Overcoming the advisor gap
While 68 percent of respondents report net worth over $100,000, only four out of 10 report using financial advisors to help them with financial matters–a call to action if there ever was one. As a side note, women are more likely than men (47 percent of women, versus 36 percent of men) to have a professional financial planner.

Among that remaining 40 percent who do seek financial advice, Thornhill says that just as many respondents entrust their financial affairs to friends and family members as they do to accredited financial professionals, again presenting a major opportunity for advisors.

Build on trust, honesty and clarity
This year’s survey results show that women are an increasingly important part of the senior market, yet they are more skeptical and demanding when it comes to seeking advice from professionals. Thornhill’s recommendation? “Anyone wanting to build their business with seniors should develop skills, expertise and even personnel who can relate to senior women,” he says.

Advisors hoping to reach the entire senior market need to pay attention to several key attributes, measured in the survey. According to participants, terms including “honesty,” “trustworthy” and “knowledgeable” ranked as the most important attributes seniors seek in a financial professional, followed by “acting in my best interest,” “understanding my needs and goals” and “giving good, objective advice.”

When it comes to actually accomplishing those goals and living up to those attributes, those surveyed exposed a credibility “gap” and often gave their financial professionals less positive marks for their performance.

“The gaps between perceived ‘importance’ and actual ‘performance’ are significant, and suggest opportunities for advisors to improve,” Thornhill says. “Any improvement will result in more business from existing clients and more referrals from other clients.”

The easiest of these to improve on is honesty, he adds. “Advisors should admit mistakes, or weaknesses, if for no other reason than to demonstrate honesty. It is clearly the most important attribute and advisors are underperforming in delivering it.”

Who do you trust with your money?
Many seniors, especially those in the burgeoning boomer retiree category, still feel like they are personally more competent in making their own financial decisions–a belief which may have proved disastrous for many riding out the economic free-fall of the last half year.

“Who do I trust? Myself first, and the rest with great, great, great distrust … be sure to read all the fine print,” said one respondent. “I’ve handled the family finances for 35 years … I see no reason to put our money in the hands of a professional who may or may not have my best interests at the forefront of his attention … assuming his skill is as good as mine.”

Those who are already working with an advisor had slightly more trustworthy feelings, but the majority don’t seem to place much faith in a wide range of financial professionals.

An uncertain future, with (or without) help
Quizzed about their feelings on the status of the still-floundering economy, a timeline to an economic recovery and their own personal financial situation, both those who do and those who do not work with a financial advisor answered in a similar fashion.

Sixty-seven percent of those who have a planner say they are confident or very confident that they will be able to continue to meet their financial needs in the future; 64 percent of those without a planner said the same thing.

Seniors have clearly been impacted by recent economic troubles, but a further discrepancy remains: 45 percent of seniors who worked with financial planners during the height of the recent crash reported a significant financial impact, while only 33 percent of those without planners felt the same way. Thornhill says his interpretation is that those without planners probably have simpler financial needs and put their money into safe, low- yeilding investments years ago, while those with planners had been more heavily participating in the market and have therefore suffered more losses.

But there’s a turnaround on the (distant) horizon
No matter how bleak most people think the current US and global economy may be, nearly all respondents said they feel optimistic that things will change in the coming five to 10 years. While only 4 percent rated the current economy as good or very good, 8 percent said they believe things will be better a year from now, 43 percent see major changes happening five years from now, and a full 66 percent think things will be recovered 10 years from now.

Not surprisingly, seniors’ overall assessment of their personal financial situation has changed significantly from two years ago. In 2007′s survey, approximately 72 percent of participants rated their personal finances as good or very good. Today, only 46 percent make that claim.

“The value of my 401(k) has gone down the toilet, and Social Security and Medicare will be dead in about three years,” observed one participant. “I’m not sure what’s going to happen in the future … I’m very concerned.”
“I am 72 years old and I don’t expect to live much more than, maybe, 10 years,” another participant reported. “I have no source of income other than Social Security, and if my husband were to pass away, I will be forced into bankruptcy.”

When asked how soon they think things will change in their own lives, some optimism emerges: 26 percent think their personal financial situation will improve in one year, 48 percent believe it will be better three years from now, 55 percent say it will take five years, and 49 percent say the turnaround will happen in 10 years.

Seniors are setting priorities … all over the place
Those surveyed, not unlike everyone else in the country, admitted they haven’t quite figured out how they plan to remain solvent, given the ongoing economic challenges. When asked about their highest priorities in their investments right now, “staying the course” received 23 percent of the votes, while “keeping your investments from declining in value” and “minimizing losses” were other popular answers. Unfortunately, “following the advice or plan developed by my advisor” was not a popular response. Again, Thornhill says, a great opportunity to step in and help seniors feel like they can more effectively take charge of their financial futures.

Product interest, awareness remains vague
Survey participants also readily admitted they have somewhat limited knowledge about the wider range of financial planning tools, which presents another educational opportunity for entrepreneurial advisors. Approximately 63 percent were very familiar with annuities and 70 percent felt familiar with term life, but the numbers dropped considerably when asked about fixed income securities and bond mutual funds. More interestingly, over the last, very tumultuous year, participants said their interest and familiarity in the four different products has not increased at all–with term life showing the biggest drop in interest.

The good news? Another great chance to teach and to illustrate the benefits.