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Gambling Among Seniors: Loss of Shirts, Nest Eggs and Other Important Things
by Marjorie Dorfman

Although gambling is a pastime that can be highly enjoyable, like most indulgences, inherent dangers lurk very close by. This is especially true among the older population, many who have saved all their lives for the comfort and security of their "golden years," and are particularly vulnerable to spending more than they can afford. Why is this so and what can be done? Read on, no matter which odds you prefer.

The gambling phenomenon at least in the United States, is an odd animal indeed. The number (take one, please) of older problem gamblers is steadily rising as boomers age while, at the same time, programs that provide help to problem gamblers are under-funded, over-extended and too few and far between. Opportunities as well as gamblers are also on the rise. A wager of some type is now legal in every state except Utah and Hawaii. (Any wagers on when that will change?) The casino construction boom is still going strong, whether it is on riverboats, Indian reservations or inside glitzy Las Vegas.

Even if you don’t live near a casino, gambling can still be a problem. (It’s the same logic behind claiming you don’t have a drinking problem because you don’t drink in bars.) The Internet makes gambling in most of its forms available 24/7. As the percentage of people ages 50-64 using the Internet has grown, so has the share of older peoples’ calls to gambling hotlines regarding addiction with online playing.

According to Pat Fowler, Executive Director of the Florida Council on Compulsive Gambling: "The situations that we encounter as we age — loneliness, death of a spouse, loss of mobility, loss of employment — make gambling a very attractive form of relief. It's a way for many people to anesthetize their pain."

The problem with this type of anesthesia is that not only isn’t it administered by a respected member of the medical community, it is also not covered by medical or any other kind of insurance. Gambling can be a very expensive band-aid. According to a study released a few years ago by the Public Mind Poll at Farleigh Dickenson University in Madison, New Jersey, gamblers in that state aged 55 and over spend on an average $3,900 a year at casinos, and as much as $14,300 annually if they are "problem" players.

The enormity of these statistics is even further compounded by the fact that older gamblers don’t have a lot of room for financial error and are much less likely to recoup their losses or rebuild their nest eggs than their younger counterparts. Getting in too deep often means sinking into quicksand, never to rise again (even with the help of baking powder).

Health insurance plans do not cover therapy for gambling addiction and even though advocacy groups have set up help lines that can refer callers to therapists, they do not have the funds to supply treatment. According to Al Gesregan, a New Jersey social worker who treats compulsive gamblers: "When gamblers seek help, it’s because they have hit rock bottom. These folks are just flat-out broke. In treatment, first we get the gambling under control and then we move on to the other issues of loneliness and isolation — the underlying addictive patterns."

The gaming industry is honest about the fact that older gamblers are their "bread and butter" business. According to Marty Goldman, Vice President of Marketing for the Atlantic City region of Harrah’s Entertainment: "Our mission is to get a fair share of every player's gaming wallet. But we never want to extend that wallet beyond a player’s means. When players go over their heads, we train everyone of our frontline people to recognize them and we are aggressive in weeding these players out."

According to the folks at AARP, seniors gamble for the following reasons:
Social interaction
Casinos are perceived as safe places to go (Ha, on more than one level!)
Emotional escape
Money just means they can play longer, thereby escaping emotional or physical pain for a longer period of time. Many seniors experience a mood altering euphoria while at a machine, in front of an Internet gambling site or at a bingo hall.

Excitement of living on the edge
Gambling can be fun and exhilarating, especially to an older person who may not have gambled before or only did so on a limited scale. Like most high mountains one can climb, however, one must remember that one can always fall off (and lose more than mountain gear in the fall).

Independence
Alas, for freedom, like many other things in life, is relative indeed. Lying to cover up losses and covertly extorting one’s own funds wearing dark glasses (and even a mask if you feel so inclined) is only fun for a little while, and there is almost always a much higher price to pay in the end.

Boosts to self-esteem from small or even large winning episodes
Unrealistic expectations create problems for compulsive gamblers, no matter how silver may be their hair or how transient their bicuspids. Gambling cannot be thought of as a way to solve financial difficulties. It is fun, yes, and definitely a high, but it can also be more expensive than the "Rocky Mountain" kind, as one cannot travel comfortably home along country roads or city streets after the loss of shirts, pants and/or underwear!

Acceptability
It was once socially unacceptable for women in particular to go to gambling establishments by themselves. Today, many senior centers and even church groups arrange outings for seniors to the local casino. Churches have benefit casino nights and bingo nights. And of course, it’s almost your duty to play the lottery and help your state! The stigma is gone. Seniors, like most of the population, are now invited to gamble everything it took them their entire lives to accumulate. This is after all, a free society.

Lack of education about gambling as an addiction
An anonymous, 67-year-old woman in recovery for gambling addiction had this to say about that: "I considered gambling risk free. My father was an alcoholic so I made the decision early in life not to drink. I just didn’t know how addictive gambling could be until it was too late."

Some signs that you and your over-50 body, mind, house and home are in serious doo-doo include:
using retirement money for gambling
cashing in life insurance, draining savings or tapping some equity in order to gamble
preoccupation with gambling and getting the money to gamble
loss of control over the time spent gambling, or the amounts spent
repeated, unsuccessful attempts to cut back
lying to others to conceal the extent of gambling activities
committing crimes to get gambling money
inability to meet financial obligations while gambling
feelings of guilt or shame because of gambling

When it comes to gambling, we all take our chances and make our own odds. No matter how old you are or are about to be, a good rule of thumb is to always remember to "look before you leap" and don’t forget too that "he who hesitates is lost."

Go figure (but don’t take odds).

Did you know . . .

Copyright 2008