Photo (cc) by Rob Boudon
What the heck was up with the 73-year-old man who allegedly pulled black underwear over his face, grabbed a shotgun and held up a Fort Pierce, Fla., bank recently?
Gambling, that’s what. The man told authorities he needed money “because he’s on a fixed income and had gambled his money away on horses and Texas Hold ’em,” says an Associated Press report.
Homeless and still gambling
It’s terrifying to think of spending your old age in poverty because you gambled away your savings and home. But that’s the reality for many seniors for whom compulsive gambling compounds the difficulties of old age.
Financially, the effects are “massive” for seniors and their families, says Keith Whyte, executive director of the National Council on Problem Gambling in Washington, D.C. “In one day you can gamble away your entire retirement.”
Personal finance columnist Liz Weston wrote on MSN Money that “the explosion of legal gambling opportunities in recent decades poses a particular danger for seniors, who are often on a fixed income and don’t have future working years to make up for any losses.”
Whyte tells of an older Maryland woman whose husband took out “multiple” mortgages on their home to finance his lottery habit. Her first inkling of the problem was the foreclosure notice before they lost their home. The couple’s adult children took her in to live with them but not him, because he denied he had a problem. At 75 he became homeless.
“That was five years ago,” Whyte says. “The last I heard he was still gambling.”
Gambling — or gaming, as casinos often call it — is a popular recreation for older Americans. Senior centers, church groups and clubs frequently sponsor trips to casinos with their welcoming lights, activity, safety, dining, entertainment and socializing. For most, it’s recreation.
But for the minority who develop an addiction, the consequences can be devastating.
Gambling helps them, momentarily, to forget the grief, losses and many difficulties that can be part of old age. But older people with dementia “are at especially high risk because they are unable to recognize limitations or use appropriate judgments,” says the AARP Bulletin, adding:
The nation’s $40 billion-a-year gambling industry aggressively targets older customers, as they have accumulated wealth and are especially vulnerable, experts say, to wagering more than they can afford. The enticements range from free bus trips, meals and even discount prescription cards to “comped” hotel accommodations.
An estimated 1 percent of Americans are addicted to gambling and another 4 million to 6 million are believed to have some symptoms.
Statistics on addiction among seniors are hard to find, however. Psychologist Robert Hunter, director of the Problem Gambling Center in Las Vegas, told AARP that about 40 percent of his center’s clients are 50 or older.
“Many of them are people who got into trouble after retiring and moving to a place where casinos are a big part of social life,” Hunter said.
Some 8 million to 10 million people – at least 60 percent of them seniors – are bused to Atlantic City casinos each year, the executive director of the Council on Compulsive Gambling of New Jersey told Philly.com. The number of older gamblers is growing faster than that of any other age group, the article says.
10 signs of trouble
If you are wondering if your parent, spouse or friend is having trouble with compulsive gambling, these signals may help. Want to learn more? Read “8 Signs You’re Addicted to Gambling and 5 Tips to Stop” and take the Gamblers Anonymous quiz, “20 Questions: Are You a Compulsive Gambler?”
A gambler may be in trouble if he or she:
- Can’t stop.
- Keeps gambling after friends go home or goes gambling alone.
- Gambles money the person can’t afford to lose.
- Withdraws from relationships, hobbies and favorite pastimes.
- Gambles to escape depression, loss, loneliness and problems.
- “Chases” losses by gambling more to win the money back.
- Hides losses and borrows money secretly.
- Is on an emotional roller coaster and often feels remorseful.
- Is out of control, even stealing or forging checks.
- Overdraws accounts, has past-due bills, and money is a pressing problem.
What you can do
If you love someone whose gambling is out of control, you can’t stop the gambling. But you can take care of yourself, your family and your finances. This brochure from the National Endowment for Financial Education and the National Council on Problem Gambling explains how to do that in detail.
If you are faced with problem gambling in your own home, above all, stay safe; “Do not try separating gamblers from access to money if you think the gambler could become verbally abusive or violent,” the brochure says.
If you’re helping an elder find a retirement community or home, look for one that educates residents about safe gambling habits, Whyte says.
Treatment that works
Here is good news: Treatment is effective, with a two-thirds success rate for people who adhere to a program, according to Whyte.
Here’s a short list of what works. People who successfully stop:
- Admit the problem. Experts say nothing will stop the gambling but the gambler’s own determination coupled with a recovery program.
- Turn to family, friends and treatment groups. Support is critical to stopping successfully. Contact Gamblers Anonymous (no fees or dues) for information, hot lines and meetings. Find Gam-Anon groups for families and loved ones of gamblers.
- Get professional help. The National Council on Problem Gambling lists certified counselors. Call the 24-hour confidential help line: (800) 522-4700.
- Control the environment. Stay away from sources of money. Turn the family bills, bank accounts, checkbooks, PINs and credit cards over to someone trusted. Stay out of harm’s way by avoiding gambling entirely. “The first bet to a problem gambler is like the first small drink to an alcoholic,” says Gamblers Anonymous.