Virtues and Vices of Gambling Among Seniors

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Make a mid-day, midweek visit to a casino in any one of the 40 states that have them and you’re likely to see a sight you might not have expected: seniors crowded in at the slot machines, the industry’s biggest revenue producers.

Some are beckoned there by the targeted tantalizing lures such as Senior Days for those 50, 55, or 65 and older offering dining discounts, free coffee and donuts, and vouchers for free play. Most casinos now offer plentiful free valet and handicap parking and supply oxygen wheelchairs and scooters inside—and many have restrooms equipped with adult diapers and boxes to dispose of insulin needles. The cagily named “Third of the Month Clubs” at some locales offer free shuttle services from senior living complexes aimed at those who flock to casinos the day they receive their Social Security checks. And many older gamblers are charmed by the birthday cards the casinos send them each year, a gesture their relatives frequently forget to make.

Many take the bait. In fact, people 65 and over identified gambling as their most frequent social activity in this study. A 2023 study published by the NIH offers insight on why gambling is attractive to seniors: “The occupational, emotional, financial, and health-related changes experienced by this population mean that they have a lot of free time available and a different relationship with money, leisure, and the future, making older adults a prime clientele for gambling promoters.”

The prevalence of lotteries and online betting sites offer easy access to gambling. But casinos, promoting a combination of games of skill and chance — including sports wagering, bingo, blackjack, baccarat, roulette, and poker — have the most allure. Most older gamblers favor slot machines. Whether that’s defined as harmless and healthy fun or a potentially dangerous addiction has become a matter of concern and debate.

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

According to the American Gaming Association, the gross gaming revenue for the US gambling industry pulled in $66.5 billion in revenue in 2023.

In fact, most older adults can and do gamble safely and without negative consequences. And those who frequent casinos five times a years, identified as “recreational” rather than “regular” gamblers, view them as safe places offering harmless entertainment and a chance to socialize with others. Some studies even show that those who gamble have better physical and mental health functioning than non-gamblers. The lucky ones crow about the financial gains they’ve made while besting the one-armed bandit.

But many experts say gambling may pose unique risks for seniors. Many seniors suffer the losses of spouses, mates, and friends as well as transitions from working to retirement that can make them more isolated and vulnerable—leading to a syndrome characterized as “Grief Gambling.” A study of 247 urban elders conducted a few years ago found that while the majority of older gamblers said they frequented casinos to be entertained and to win money, nearly one-quarter said they went to avoid a feeling of loss or to escape sadness. The 2023 NIH report found that casino marketing to seniors was highly successful because of increased exposure and availability to legalized gambling, discounts on food and drink, promotional coupons, and free transportation.  According to the report,  gambling was also promoted as a means to fight isolation.  Taken together, they could send a senior down the “habit pathway”, concluded the NIH.

In other ways, too, seniors may have a lot more to lose. Most are living on fixed and finite finances, leaving them few ways to make up any sever consequences (i.e.,  financial loss, debt accumulation, and illegal behaviors (forging, fraud, theft, or embezzlement to finance gambling). And some suffer cognitive impairments, mood or anxiety disorders, or take medications that make it difficult to make good decisions about control or to discern when and whether gambling has become problematic.

The most feared fallout is addiction.

In 2013, the American Psychiatric Association recognized pathological gambling, or Gambling Disorder — characterized by consistent, repetitive gambling, and unsuccessful attempts at quitting — as an addiction. That same year, the gambling industry reported that more than half of its customers were 50 years and older, a group aggressively on the rise since then, by most counts. Now they’re among the most “studied” group, too, with experts positing that as many as four million seniors have what is defined as a serious gambling problem.

Those projections, based on self-reports, are likely lowballed. Despite its increased popularity, availability, and social acceptability, gambling still carries with it a stigma, making it less likely for some to admit to the habit.

When Is It a Problem?

For better or worse, though, gambling is here to stay — and likely to increase in the growing elderly population. Experts say that a number of facts and feelings may signal that a senior’s gambling habits have turned from an innocent to problematic pastime. Beware of:

  • A loss of interest in friends and family members activities — such as eating, socializing, and spending time on hobbies or other entertainment
  • Unaccounted blocks of time
  • Missing possessions or assets
  • Secrecy and avoidance in discussing time and money
  • Depression and listlessness
  • Gambling to forget worries, calm nerves, alleviate depression
  • Talking or thinking excessively about gambling
  • Needing to gamble more often to get the positive effects felt earlier
  • Experiencing health problems such as headaches, lethargy, irritable bowel and bladder problems
  • Having financial problems that can be traced to gambling
  • Lying about gambling habits.

What to Do

In a webinar titled “Older Adults and Gambling: Keeping It Safe,” presenters Jody Bechtold and Elizabeth Mulvaney, both licensed clinical social workers, suggested “Ten Rules of Responsible Gaming” to help seniors monitor their gambling behavior to keep it a harmless diversion rather than dangerous addiction.

  1. If you choose to gamble, do so for entertainment; if gambling is no longer enjoyable, ask yourself why you still play.
  2. Treat the money you lose as the cost of your entertainment.
  3. Set a dollar limit — based not only on what you can “afford” to lose, but on how much you want to spend — and stick to it.
  4. Set a limit on the time you want to spend gambling — and again, stick to it, whether you are winning or losing.
  5. Expect to lose money; those are the odds.
  6. Make it your private rule not to borrow money to gamble or to gamble on credit.
  7. Create a balance in your life that includes time with family, friends, and activities other than gambling.
  8. Avoid “chasing” to recoup losses.
  9. Don’t gamble as a way to cope with emotional or physical pain.
  10. Become educated about the warning signs of problem gambling.

Where to Go for Help

A number of national organizations offer assistance and support to people experiencing problems with gambling and those concerned about them. The groups also include numbers for free, confidential helplines, as well as links to additional state resources.

Helpful resources include:

A number of organizations offer information and 12-step programs for dealing with gaming addictions, including:

(This article was updated May, 2024 since it originally published December, 2016.)

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