When a Senior Loved One Has a Gambling Problem

Seniors using slot machines at a casino

Chuck and Becky help their mom keep her finances in order, but lately they've noticed she's running out of money far before the end of the month. Credit card statements revealed that Mom was spending an increasing amount at a local casino. "Since I retired, I get bored at home," said Mom. "They send me coupons and I can take the free shuttle there. Besides, I have a lucky slot machine and I'm sure I’ll hit the jackpot soon!"

March is Problem Gambling Awareness Month. Sponsored by the National Council on Problem Gambling (NCPG), this event seeks to educate the public about gambling addiction and about help that is available. Gambling is a huge industry in the U.S. Experts report that Americans spend more on casino gambling, sports gambling, lotteries, bingo, pull tabs and internet gambling than they do on music, sporting events and movies combined. Casino gambling is more popular than ever; according to the American Gaming Association, gamblers spend more than $37 billion each year at the nation's casinos.

Statistics show that seniors are the fastest-growing group of gamblers. They enjoy bingo, racetrack betting—and especially, casino gambling. AARP recently reported that senior gamblers can be big business for casinos, who heavily target older adults in their marketing campaigns. AARP reports, "Retirement-aged consumers are an especially desirable demographic for the gaming industry because they fill the floors during off-peak hours. Casinos market to them aggressively, offering discounted meals, 'Golden Oldies' entertainment shows, and complimentary shuttle service—on days when Social Security checks arrive." A 2014 report from the Institute for American Values found that some casinos attract older gamblers with plentiful handicapped spaces in the parking lot, mobility scooters, and bathrooms equipped with adult diapers and needle disposal receptacles for diabetics.

For many seniors, gambling is harmless entertainment. They hop on the casino shuttle, socialize with others and casino staff, bet a few dollars and take advantage of senior discounts on meals, drinks and perhaps a show. They've set aside part of their entertainment budget for gambling, and they stop when they reach their limit.

However, the NCPG reports that some older adults develop a gambling problem that seriously impacts their financial well-being. The NCPG, whose mission statement says they are "neither for or against legalized gambling," seeks to "improve health and wellness by reducing the personal, social and economic costs of problem gambling."

What is problem gambling?

Problem gambling—also referred to as gambling addiction, pathological gambling or a gambling disorder—happens when a person becomes obsessed with gambling and has an uncontrollable urge to keep gambling. According to the Nevada Council on Problem Gambling, "For the problem gambler, making a bet is not just about having fun or winning money. Gambling becomes an emotional response to change the way they feel." In addition, warns the NCPG, a person might have a gambling problem if they are:

  • Bragging about gambling, exaggerating wins and minimizing losses
  • Restless and irritable when not gambling
  • Gambling in hopes of winning back what they have lost
  • Borrowing money for gambling
  • Lying to hide time spent gambling or unpaid debts
  • Doing something illegal to get money for gambling
  • Jeopardizing a significant relationship or job by gambling

Why are seniors at higher risk?

The NCPG explains that boredom, isolation, depression and cognitive impairment affect judgment and make it harder for senior gamblers to stick to their limit. Seniors on a fixed income—who can little afford to gamble away their money—might hope that they will strike it rich and improve their financial situation. In addition to the signs above, family may notice that their loved one has withdrawn from the activities they used to enjoy. Possessions may have disappeared from their loved one's home, and their loved one is vague about what happened. A senior may be neglecting their personal needs—food, medical care, or exercise. And here's a sign experts often cite as a red flag: Seniors with a gambling addiction show little interest in the buffet, entertainment or social aspects of a casino trip, instead heading straight for their "lucky machine" and settling in.

What can family do?

The first step is to review the warning signs of problem gambling to get a better picture of whether your loved one has a problem. You can't step in merely because you don't approve of gambling, or you think Mom should spend her entertainment money somewhere else.

The next step is to determine whether there are medical reasons behind the problem. Gerontologists say problem gambling might be a sign that a senior is dealing with early Alzheimer's disease or other cognitive impairment that impairs judgment and impulse control. The side effects of some medications also can make a senior more susceptible to compulsive gambling. For example, certain drugs prescribed to control the symptoms of Parkinson's disease have been linked to impulse control—including pathological gambling. Urge your loved one to be evaluated by a healthcare provider to rule out or diagnose these problems.

Having a conversation about problem gambling can be very difficult. Your loved one may resist talking about it and may insist that there isn't a problem. Assure them that you have their best interests in mind, and that you want to help, not judge. Encourage your loved one to talk to a professional. Treatment is available for gambling addiction and includes support groups, psychotherapy and sometimes medication. Consider bringing in a geriatric care manager (also called an aging life care specialist) to mediate the conversation and to help you locate treatment resources. Talk to your loved one's financial manager, or consult an elder law attorney. Sometimes, if a senior is no longer able to manage their money, families must take a larger role. (Read "Stepping In, Stepping Up: Legal Issues for Family Caregivers" in the August 2016 issue of the Caring Right at Home newsletter to learn more. A poll in that issue found that many Caring Right at Home readers have held a durable power of attorney or guardianship for a senior loved one at some point.)

Not every gambling habit rises to the level of addiction. A senior who goes to the casino several times a week to stave off boredom and loneliness might find even more mental stimulation and companionship through a senior recreation program, volunteer service, events at their faith community, or taking a class. Help your loved one locate appropriate activities in the area. If your loved one has become isolated due to mobility challenges, consider hiring home care to provide companionship and transportation. Even computer games can be a substitute for folks who enjoy relaxing with a machine—and as a bonus, these games offer far more mental stimulation and brain exercise than a slot machine.

Problem Gambling Awareness Month logo (teal ribbon)

Learn More and Get Help

Visit the website of the Problem Gambling Awareness Month sponsor, the National Council on Problem Gambling, to find the National Problem Gambling Helpline.

Right at Home, Inc. is a national organization dedicated to improving the quality of life for those we serve. We fulfill that mission through a dedicated network of locally owned providers of in home care services.