While women around the world share similar dreams of retiring in leisure and comfort, the financial reality for many is much closer to a nightmare. Indeed, only one in five women today believes they are on the right track to meet their income needs in retirement.

Those are among the findings of the recent research from the nonprofit Transamerica Center for Retirement Studies, “Women: Balancing Family, Career & Financial Security.” The research study polled 16,000 workers and retirees (including 7,956 women) in 15 countries to compare retirement attitudes and preparedness.

The most important message for financial planners to come out of the study is that women are looking for assistance and expertise in retirement matters. They are increasingly worried, and they want help identifying the best ways to catch-up with under-funded retirement savings.

There is some other good news in the study. For example, “Retirement confidence is rebounding, which is fantastic,” said study author Catherine Collinson. “Employment rates are picking up, and we see that in government data. And one thing we see in our research that bodes really well for people who are working and have access to retirement benefits is that 401(k) plan participation rates – which had seen a slight dip in contributions – are rebounding as well.”

Ill Prepared for a Long Life’s Demands

But before you get too excited, the bulk of the research findings are not encouraging, notes Collinson. Specifically, most women are still ill-prepared to face retirement compared with their male counterparts, and many fail to recognize how long a retirement they need to plan for.

“There are dark clouds looming over women with future retirement,” Collinson said. “Women today have levels of education and career opportunities that, frankly, their grandmothers could never have dreamed of. However, we still also have family responsibilities and are more likely to take time out of the workforce or work part time to be a parent or caregiver and this affects our pay. Over time it puts women at an extreme disadvantage compared to men, and on an entirely different trajectory.”

The center has published reports on women and retirement for 10 years now. But this year the study was taken global, collecting data from 15 countries, according to Collinson. There were some differences in the findings, but there was also a universal message – “women are lagging behind men in terms of their overall retirement savings and preparedness everywhere.”

“Most women are saving, so the issue isn’t getting women to save in the first place,” Collinson said. “The issue and the challenge is their ability to save enough. What is born out of the research is that circumstances—be it lower pay or lesser access to benefits—are holding them back in terms of their ability to save. Part of solving the problem is simply higher wages or higher earnings, greater access to benefits, and very specifically, the ability to save over time.”

The study also found that there is one very clear group of individuals that face especially harsh retirement reality: single women over 50.

“Single women over the age of 50 are at an extra-ordinary at risk situation with regard to their future retirement,” Collinson said. “The retirement confidence is low among these women anyway. But the analysis yields a more terrifying interpretation.”

Facing the Prospect of Retirement Years Alone

Ironically, the terror of retirement for many women comes from what should obviously be good news. They are living longer, according toretirement planner Karla McAvoy, with HC Financial Advisors in Lafayette, CA.

“Women are living quite a long time and if someone is looking at a 30 or 40 year retirement, that requires a lot of savings,” McAvoy said.

That longevity also increases the likelihood that a woman will ‘go it alone’ at some point in their retirement.

“Too many women who are part of a couple at an earlier state in life don’t recognize the very real possibility that at some point in the future they are going to be single. Iit could be due to a divorce, it could be due to the death of a spouse. And they need to be prepared to live out their life on what they have.”

All of which is why the financial advisors at HC Financial make a special point of involving women in their discussions about estate planning. McAvoy said that the male in a couple traditionally does most of the talking in their office, but it’s important that the female half of the partnership be fully informed of what is being done or recommended.

“We make a very concerted effort that both are involved,” McAvoy said. “There are certainly cases, most often it is the woman, although we do have some men in this case as well, that just don’t want to deal with it and will choose not to come to our meetings, and don’t communicate with us that often.”

But that makes it especially important that women are kept informed each step through the process. Should a life-changing event happen, they don’t want to suddenly have to get up to speed on finances while they’re dealing with the emotional trauma.

To avoid that scenario, McAvoy said that retirement planners make a point of asking questions of the female in a couple.

“If we can get the person to the meeting, we can ask flat out direct questions to them or direct comments to them, or ask for comments from them about what we’ve discussed,” McAvoy said.

“If they won’t come to meetings, we will try to give them a call and catch them when we know they will be there. Keep in touch and go the best you can,” McAvoy said. “I certainly think it is our duty to help them understand that they have the pieces in place to at least feel comfortable if they are left on their own, and to know that we’re here to help them in those situations, and to help them work through it.”