En español | I don't buy my mom nice jewelry anymore because I am afraid she'll sell it in a moment of desperation at the casino, when she's out of cash and willing to do anything to give the slot machines just one more try.
My mom, 67, is a gambling addict. She calls it el vicio—the vice—and she’s quick to admit it, to apologize, to swear she’s through. But some combination of post-retirement boredom, loneliness, and perhaps even a genetic tendency toward addiction keeps pulling her back.
And so my beautiful, courageous mom—a native of Mexico who started working at age 14, who immigrated to the United States without knowing a word of English and went on to earn three advanced degrees, who has inspired so many children in 30 years as an elementary school teacher—finds herself swimming in debt, savings depleted, at a time when she should be enjoying the rewards of a life of hard work and sacrifice.
“The new face of problem gambling in America has become a senior woman who has lost a spouse or become alienated from her children, but has embraced slot machines and quite rapidly develops an addiction,” says Keith Whyte, executive director of the National Council on Problem Gambling, a nonprofit organization that estimates Americans gambled away $100 billion in 2008.
For most people, gambling is a popular form of entertainment, with 68 percent of Americans reporting they have gambled at least once in the last year, according to a National Gambling Impact Study Report. But experts believe an estimated 4 to 5 percent of Americans have lost their ability to control their gambling, leading to financial problems, family disputes, work interruptions and, in extreme cases, suicide.
Psychologists consider older people to be more at risk for gambling problems, says Dr. Timothy Fong, co-director of the UCLA Gambling Studies Program “The elderly are going to be more vulnerable to gambling than folks who are working full time because they have more available time,” Fong says.
Easy access to legal gambling—now available in some form in every state except Hawaii and Utah, with casinos in 38 states—has turned a formerly exotic activity into something as common as going to the movies. And with more competition for gambling dollars, casinos have stepped up their efforts to attract retirees, who are available during slower weekday periods and eager for inexpensive diversions.
“Some of my patients refer to the casinos as ‘the club,’ as their form of the country club,” says Suzanne Graupner Pike, Ph.D., CEO/president of the San Diego Center for Pathological Gambling, where half her clients are older than 60. “The buses travel to the senior centers and pick these people up, give them a $10 coupon and free lunch, and take them to spend the whole day at the casino.”
Pike said older people who develop addictions tend to use gambling as a way to escape their everyday problems: loneliness, the loss of a spouse, the stressful demands of family. “The gambling sets up a smoke screen, so that the underlying issues don’t have to be dealt with,” says Pike, who has been treating problem gamblers since 1995.
Getting seniors to admit they have a problem can be difficult because they prize self-sufficiency and are reluctant to give up control of their money. “There’s a great deal of shame because these are folks who have managed money all their lives, survived recessions, and are horrified that their adult children or the community will find out they fell into a gambling problem,” says Whyte, whose national problem gambling helpline fielded 255,000 calls last year.
Among Latinos, the issue of family embarrassment can stand in the way of treatment, says Shirley Beckett Mikell, director of certification and education for NAADAC, The Association for Addiction Professionals.