Gambling Addiction Among Seniors on the Rise
Life + Money

Gambling Addiction Among Seniors on the Rise

REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson

Once upon a time, bingo was the biggest game in town at the local senior center. But you're far more likely to find today's seniors manning a slot machine at the local casino - and some have become gambling addicts.

Problem gambling among older people is on the rise. Seniors have time and money on their hands, and the proliferation of casinos in most regions of the country has made gambling more convenient.

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“What we are seeing is that seniors are the backbone of the modern casino industry,” says Keith Whyte, executive director of the National Council on Problem Gambling (NCPG), a non-profit organization that advocates for programs and services to help problem gamblers and their families. "The marketing and promotion to seniors is light-years from what it was."

Experts say gray gambling addiction will become more prevalent as the baby boomers age. “Boomers are the first generation that grew up in a culture where gambling has been fully accepted,” says Dr. Timothy Fong, co-director of the UCLA Gambling Studies Program. “We’re going to see problem gambling becoming a bigger problem as they get older.”

I can already see my email in-box filling up with notes from angry gray gamblers and concerned spouses and children. So let's agree on an important caveat: Not all senior gambling is addiction. As Fong is quick to add, recreational gambling can be OK for older people. More than OK, in fact.

"There are social aspects of game playing at a recreational level that can be good for an older person's physical and cognitive health," says Fong, an associate clinical professor of psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences at UCLA. "The best parts of gambling are very interesting for people when they're tied into a larger recreational activity. It means seniors are using their minds and staying active. They're going with friends to play the slots, eat and laugh together. It's a bonding experience, and it can improve health."

The problems crop up when recreational gambling turns into an addiction. It's still more prevalent among young people than old, experts say, but seniors are most vulnerable.

"It doesn't take as many gambling losses before they start developing problems," Fong says. "It's the same as vulnerability to alcohol or drugs. By the time we see them for treatment, the damage already is extensive, and that's why it is so difficult to deal with. They've gambled away their life savings and there's no way to recoup."

Some seniors use gambling as a form of emotional escape, something women can be especially vulnerable to, Whyte says. "For women, getting involved often is precipitated by grief or loss and they're seeking escape. They can go from having no problem at all with gambling, or just being a recreational gambler, to hitting bottom in just a few months."

Slot machines are far and away the most popular gambling option at casinos, and the latest generation isn't your father's machine with spinning lemons, cherries and melons. Today's machines offer intense sensory stimulation with large video screens, music and vibrating, ergonomic chairs. They are proving highly addictive for seniors, Fong says.

"We study the patterns of seniors coming in with addictions, and slots are far and away the preferred form - and the addiction is deeper."

Related: The 5 Best States for Seniors

How to know if your spouse or parent has a gambling problem? Whyte points to three measures of that can help with an evaluation:

- Preoccupation. "Is the person constantly talking about gambling? Is there a preoccupation there that wasn't present before?"

- Tolerance. "Does the person need to bet more and more to get the same level of excitement? If the amount they are gambling is jumping, that's a sign of addiction."

- Loss of control. "The easiest warning sign is a person who can't set a limit of time and money to be spent in the casino, and then stick to it."

Fong asks seniors to evaluate whether gambling is helping or hurting their quality of your life. "If it's just something to do with friends and your spending is in control, then it's just a form of recreation - even if you are going every day. But it shouldn't be used as an escape from life - to avoid feelings of sadness, despair or loneliness.

The NCPG has a problem gambling hotline (800-522-4700), which can direct you to resources in your state, including counselors who have been trained through the National Certified Gambler Counseling Program.