If I lose today, I can look forward to winning tomorrow, and if I win today, I can expect to lose tomorrow. A sure thing is no fun. Chico Marx
Seniors are at equal risk as other adults for gambling problems, but possess vulnerabilities that cannot be overlooked. Dr. Sandra Rasmussen, a family therapist at the Williamsville Wellness Treatment Center in Hanover, VA, said that bingo and casino gambling are marketed to seniors as social outlets.
Though most play responsibly, the entertainment value can be alluring. Local churches, American Legion chapters or senior centers can act as authentic gaming outlets. “It’s for a good cause,” Rasmussen acknowledged, “but I’ve treated many seniors who will live on tea and toast to play bingo or take trips to casinos.”
Rasmussen has seen the major signs of seniors with gambling problems. Concerned children call on behalf of their parents. The refrigerator is bare. There’s weight loss. Certain behaviors are suspicious – coming home late – lack of contact with children.
Signs of Problem Gambling
Christine Reilly, the Research Director at the National Center for Responsible Gaming (NCRG), highlighted that retired people should be aware of many mental health issues, including addictions. Retirement is a transitional period which can include loss of friends, death of a spouse, and lack of work structure, leading to depression and anxiety.
According to Reilly, seniors exhibit the same signs of gambling addiction as the general population, including: spending inordinate amounts of time playing games of chance; withdrawal symptoms when they try to cut back – like with drugs and alcohol; gambling for high stakes to achieve the desired mood; lying to family and friends.
“They experience difficulty admitting or even knowing they’re addicted,” said Reilly. “It creeps up on people. It doesn’t happen overnight.”
Reilly encourages prevention strategies:
- Have a budget
- Keep it fun
- Gambling is not a way to make money or escape from problems
- The odds are always with the house
- Evaluate views of superstition and luck
- Gamble with friends, not in isolation
Holly Wetzel, the Vice President of Communications for the American Gaming Association (AGA), attributes education as a key to assisting seniors with gambling problems. Her organization partners with the treatment community to direct people in need of support. "Gamble within your limits for losses," she said. “Don’t borrow money to gamble, and understand how the games work and their odds."
Rasmussen, a treatment specialist, has seen that addiction can defy accepted logic. “Seniors need to identify high-risk situations,” she said. “Like check days. What’s the plan when the social security check or pension check arrives?”
If there’s an identifiable addiction problem, seniors can work with wellness centers and their children to pinpoint urges or cravings. “They need alternatives to gambling. A phone list of recovering seniors to call is critical.” She recommended that adult children pay bills directly rather than giving money to parents with gambling problems.
“Gambling is meeting a need for addicted seniors,” said Rasmussen. “Identify the need – boredom – loneliness. Maybe the family isn’t visiting enough.”
The Need for Accountability
She pinpointed the need for accountability. Seniors with gambling problems need to be shown the consequences of their actions, the dangers to their savings. “We try to show them that they’re responsible for their problem – their loss of money – but they’re also responsible for their recovery.” The shift is away from negativity especially when depression is involved. She agrees with Reilly, from NCRG. Overall health concerns need to be addressed.
Reilly stressed the requirement to deal with the mental health issues underlying gambling disorders. She emphasized the cues to problem gambling – avoiding casinos or lottery vendors – finding replacement activities that provide enjoyment.
All sources agreed that gambling can provide a responsible social outlet with proper monitoring.