Ringing bells, jangling chimes, whirring reels and the flashing lights of casino slot games all beckon visitors to insert bills so they can win big. Once you’re in the chair — and some are even ergonomic — it’s hard to leave.
This doesn’t happen by accident.
Nothing in casinos (from restaurants located so you to pass by lots of slots and table games to no clocks on the walls to windowless rooms) is haphazard. It’s all designed to keep you gambling as long as possible, spending your money.
When Gambling Becomes a Problem
Staying and playing too long can cause a player on a fixed income to make mistakes that can’t be resolved, like depleting a retirement account or savings. That’s a sure sign gambling has become a problem.
(MORE: How Addiction Happens: It's Not Just Poor Life Decisions)
“Twenty-five percent of the calls we receive for help each month come from someone 55 years or older or from a worried loved one calling about a relative in that age group,” says Brian Kongsvik, helpline director for the Florida Council on Compulsive Gambling in Sanford, Fla. “Besides slots, these same people also wager on card games and the lottery.”
To be fair, Florida may have more than its share of gray problem-gamblers because, according to the U.S. Census, 19 percent of all Floridians are over 65 years of age. The state also ranks fourth in the nation for gambling revenue, Kongsvik says.
Still, folks over 50 make up a segment of the population that tends to be more vulnerable for developing gambling problems, says Dennis McNeilly, a clinical geropsychologist at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha.
McNeilly has studied gambling extensively. He says people in that age range, who are often in transitions in both family and work life, may be bored, feel cut off or even have undiagnosed depression.
(MORE: 10 Tips to Prepare for a Great Life After Work)
Casinos Pull Out All the Stops
Although casinos try to appeal to everyone, they particularly cater to the over-50 folks.
“It’s mainstream entertainment, transportation is provided and they get freebies for joining a slot club,” says McNeilly. Who doesn’t want to get something for free, like dinner, drinks or coupons?
“Casinos regularly send mailings and even birthday cards. If you’re isolated or lonely, that matters,” McNeilly adds.
Plus, casinos are broadly user-friendly. Visiting the casino doesn’t require special knowledge; you don’t have to be in good shape; and it’s open 24 hours a day. If you’re frail or ill, it doesn’t matter — casinos go out of their way to accommodate people who need accessibility.
Many folks see gambling as a social activity, and it can indeed be that. Someone may be visiting the casino three times a week and not have a gambling problem, says Dr. Timothy Fong, co-director of the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) Gambling Studies Program.
If it’s improving the quality of someone’s life and they are meeting friends, going to concerts, sharing meals — then it’s their social time.
The majority of people gamble responsibly, without spending more than they have or depleting savings. It’s another form of entertainment.
There’s a fine line between gambling as an interest and as a disorder. The trick is watching out for when social time slips to behavior that’s compulsive or addictive, and that begins to harm the person doing it.
(MORE: How to Make Healthy Retirement Choices)
Kongsvik says those who have a compulsive personality can get roped in quickly.
“A national study of older adults with gambling problems hasn’t yet been done,” says McNeilly. “But the prevalence in the general adult population has an estimated range of 1.5 to 3 percent who meet the criteria for a pathological gambling diagnosis.”
Signs Someone Needs Help
“Unlike alcohol impairment, you don’t see the obvious signs,” says Fong. People with gambling addictions "may be irritable, not sleeping well and not doing things they like as much as they did in the past.”
Other indicators include selling possessions, staying away from family members, withdrawing from friends and being absent for long periods of time, says Kongsvik.
It’s important for either the gambler or a loved one to catch the problem early, because it spirals out of control quickly. People in the over-50 population can’t usually make back the money they’ve lost. Then they become a financial burden on their family, which can lead to severe emotional problems, illegal activities, like writing bad checks or stealing from family members and even suicide, Kongsvik says.
The National Council on Problem Gambling provides treatment and support in states that have funded services, says Fong. In states that don’t have affiliates, another state takes over for them. No matter where you live, you can call 1-800-522-4700 to get help. Gamblers Anonymous is a free 12-step program that Fong says works. Gam-Anon, an online resource, provides information and support to those affected by a loved one's gambling addiction.
The problem gambler should also see his or her primary care physician.
“We have some medications that reduce the cravings of gambling, blunt the euphoria and help with sleep and anxiety,” says Fong. “But medications are only a small part of the recovery story. Gamblers also need group and behavioral therapy and daily work to manage a healthier lifestyle.”
Gambling is here to stay, Fong says, but it should only be one small part of a person’s recreational time.
Heather Larson writes about travel in her home state of Washington.