Are Too Many Seniors Gambling Their Lives Away?

Associated Press/Carol Phelps The casino industry commands $37 billion in annual revenue. As far as competitive pastimes go, Americans spend more money on gambling than we do on professional sports. And if it’s the rush that’s the draw, there’s no competition: We shell out $9 billion more on gambling than we spend on coffee and video games combined each year.

But when you dig into the demographics of gambling, a troubling trend emerges.

Among senior citizens, gambling is a primary social outlet — more so than outings to museums, libraries, and zoos, according to one survey of activity directors from senior centers, assisted-care retirement centers, nursing homes, and church groups.

Casino visitation rates among the elderly are surprisingly high, with 28 percent of people aged 65 and older reporting having gone to a casino in 2012, and and 36 percent of those between ages 50 and 64 report having done so, according to the American Gaming Association’s 2013 Survey of Casino Entertainment. And University of Pennsylvania researcher David Oslin told Psychology Today that his research revealed that 70 percent of those 65 or older said they had gambled in the previous year — with nearly 10 percent admitting to gambling away more than they could afford to lose.

‘Hospitality to the Vulnerable’

By 2030, there will be more than 72 million people aged 65 and older — that’s nearly double the number in that demographic in 2009 (the latest year for which data is available). The trend has the association on the defensive, promoting studies that assure that gambling is not “a major threat to the elderly” and it offers “excitement and entertainment” and an expression of “personal freedom.”

But, as a new investigative report from the Institute for American Values argues it’s more than just an innocent pastime for many seniors. (The nonpartisan, nonprofit institute focuses on initiatives to “renew civil society and end the culture wars.”)

Amy Ziettlow, the report’s author, admits it’s not hard to see why seniors are so eager to frequent casinos. They’re enticed by deals (a full breakfast buffet $3) and welcomed with wheelchairs or motorized scooters, and they feel at home in facilities stocked with deposit boxes for diabetic needles and supplies of adult diapers. All of which she calls a sort of “hospitality to the vulnerable.”

Casino loyalty provide patrons a sense of belonging, but economics professor John Kindt told Ziettlow that they merely track patrons’ activities so that targeted marketing can lure them back. Her experience was laden with depressing anecdotes of seniors telling her they were merely “passing the time” and reasoning, “What else is there to do?” All of which left her wondering why casinos were so friendly. And whether the hobby was as innocent as the industry alleges.

What Can Be Done?

The primary risk that seniors face when gambling (and according to Psychology Today, as many as 4 million seniors do have a serious gambling problem) is that they may not be aware of what they’re doing and why — which can transform into an unhealthy physical and financial addiction.

Some are lonely and enjoy interaction with the smiling faces working at a casino. Others suffer from dementia, a condition that weakens inhibitions, and gamble away more than they can afford. Still others sign up for activity clubs that revolve around regular trips to casinos. But because the median senior lives on a fixed income of roughly $35,000 a year, one day of overindulgence could mean the difference between being able to eat at the end of the month and going hungry.

If you’re concerned that seniors you know ares at risk for gambling problems, have a discussion. But keep in mind that addiction usually indicates a deeper problem.

Help them find more fulfilling outlets for their energy or need to interact (gardening, a pet, volunteering, book clubs, etc.). If you have the means, offer to fund the new hobby. Look for senior activity groups within your community that offer regular, enjoyable events.

Of course, you should also make sure that, as you age, you avoid falling into the casino trap by taking similar steps. If you enjoy an occasional trip to the casino, adhere to a budge. Go light on alcoholic drinks that could convince you to spend more than you intended. And leave the rest of your money (or ways to get money) at home so you have no way to gamble past your limit.

Adam Wiederman is a Motley Fool contributing writer.​

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