NEW YORK (CNNfn) - When "Sally" was widowed at 62, she was left with a house that was paid for, several retirement accounts, and no debt. A decade later, she was $50,000 in hock, hadn't paid her real estate taxes in years and had spent her life insurance money.|
Her kids thought she must have been the victim of a scam. But her friends knew better. They never saw her anymore, they said, because she spent her nights and weekends at the casinos, where she would often tap the on-site ATM machines to fund her gambling habit.
Losing your shirt late in life
Sally, whose name was changed to protect her privacy, is not unique.
She is among a group of seniors known as "late onset" gamblers, people who never gambled seriously before they retired and many of whom used to be financially responsible.
Compulsive gambling groups report that seniors now account for as much as 13 percent of calls to their hotlines. "Seniors are well represented," said Keith Whyte, executive director of The National Council on Problem Gambling.
With more time and, sometimes, money on their hands, older Americans can find it hard to resist the siren call of the slot machine, lottery lust or even bingo binges, experts say.
And research shows they are heeding that call in greater numbers than ever.
Gambling increased more among seniors than any other age group, according to a study done for the National Gambling Impact Study Commission. In 1998, 50 percent of people over 65 said they had gambled in the past year. That's more than double the 23 percent recorded in 1975.
Entertainment or escape?
But just because your grandmother, father or 70-year-old neighbor boards a bus to Atlantic City every Tuesday doesn't mean they have a problem. Most seniors go for the entertainment value and don't gamble more than they can afford.
For some, the pull is as much psychological as social.
"They can forget their troubles for a day," said Edward Looney, executive director of the Council on Compulsive Gambling of New Jersey.
But those most susceptible to problem gambling are people Looney terms "escape" gamblers -- those who seek to alleviate their depression over the loss of a spouse, an illness or an inactive life. These are people who will sit in front of a slot machine for hours at a time, he said. "It's like a cocoon. Nobody can touch them."
The high price of Lady Luck
But the cost of that escape can be frighteningly high. A senior who amasses gambling debt risks more financially than younger addicts because they often live on a fixed income and have a hard time recouping what they've lost -- whether it's their savings, Social Security checks, insurance money or cash for food and medications.
For callers to Looney's group, their average gambling debts totaled $38,030 in 1998, above their average annual income of $36,134.
There are some red flags to watch for if you suspect someone you know has a problem, said Elizabeth George, executive director of the North American Training Institute, a nonprofit dedicated to compulsive gambling research and treatment. They include:
- Missing family occasions such as a beloved grandchild's birthday;
- Failing to meet monthly expenses such as food, medicine or housing costs;
- Hiding or lying about their losses or whereabouts;
- Being uncharacteristically secretive about finances;
- Talking only about winnings; or
- Getting repeated cash advances from credit cards.
'Bet with your head, not over it'
Hard data on just how much seniors rack up in gambling debt is hard to come by. Research in the field is relatively new, experts and gaming companies say, but awareness of the problem is growing.
Some groups such as Looney's have created senior outreach programs, and casino companies like Harrah's have begun to address the general problem of compulsive gambling by instituting responsible gaming programs. Casino employees are trained by outside consultants like Arnie Wexler, a recovering compulsive gambler himself, to identify customers with a problem and offer to deny them credit or ban them from the casino floor if the customer wishes.
In addition, a Harrah's spokesman said, there are signs and brochures posted in casinos owned by Harrah's, including near ATM machines, to remind people to "bet with your head, not over it."
But the gambling industry does not recognize a problem specific to seniors. "Since people tend to see a lot of older people, they think there's a problem," said Christine Reilly, head of the National Center for Responsible Gaming, a research organization funded by the commercial casino industry and its vendors. "There's no evidence yet that there's a major problem." But, she added, "We'd love to see a project on that."
Getting nationwide data may be difficult. When asked to provide age-specific information on what percent of the industry's customers are seniors and how much revenue their patronage generates, a spokeswoman for the American Gaming Association, an industry trade group, said, "You'd really be hard-pressed to find it. I've never seen those kinds of numbers."
But those who work with late-life compulsive gamblers say gaming companies may be reluctant -- for competitive reasons, among others -- to disclose how much they make from what is a significant percent of their customer base.
Choosing to break the habit
In any case, statistics can be cold comfort when you discover a family member or friend has a gambling problem.
Sally's children only found out about their mother's extensive debt after she was hospitalized and they were going through her bills, said George, who learned of Sally's situation in speaking with her kids at a conference on gambling.
If your parent or someone close to you is waist-deep in debt, you may try to bail them out -- again and again. Don't.
"That's the wrong way to do it. It doesn't help," Looney said.
As with all addictions, real recovery is a matter of personal choice. "It's not going to work if you don't want to get help," said a representative from Gamblers Anonymous.
If you or someone you know has a gambling addiction of any kind, experts suggest contacting one of the following groups for advice and support.
- National Council on Problem Gambling, 1-800-522-4700
- Arnie and Sheila Wexler Associates, 1-888-LAST-BET
- Gamblers Anonymous - Click here for a state-by-state listing of meetings
- Council on Compulsive Gambling of New Jersey, 1-800-GAMBLER
- Connecticut Council on Problem Gambling, 1-888-789-7777
- Arizona Problem Gambling Helpline, 1-888-991-1234
- Minnesota Problem Gambling Helpline, 1-800-541-4557