DEAR SAVVY SENIOR: How can you know when someone has a gambling problem? Since my father passed away a couple years ago, my 76-year-old mother spends a lot of time at an Indian casino near her house playing slot machines. — Troubled Son
DEAR TROUBLED: It’s a great question. Problem gambling among seniors is definitely on the rise. Seniors have time and money on their hands, and the influx of casinos across the country have made access to gambling much more convenient. Here’s what you should know, along with some tips and resources that can help your mom if she does indeed have a problem.
For most older adults, gambling is simply a fun recreational activity, but for those who become addicted to it, it can be a devastating disease that can financially wipe them out.
There are a number of reasons why seniors can be vulnerable to gambling problems. For starters, seniors are often catered to by casinos with free bus transportation, free or discounted meals, special rewards and other prizes as a way to entice them.
In addition, many seniors use gambling as a way to distract or escape feelings of loneliness, depression, sadness or even a chronic health condition. Some may have financial problems they are seeking to overcome. And some may have cognitive impairment that interferes with their ability to make sound decisions.
Adding to the problem is that many seniors may not understand addiction, making them less likely to identify a gambling problem. Or they may be confused or embarrassed that they can’t control their urges to gamble and reluctant to seek help because they think that at their age, they should know better. And even if they recognize that they have a problem, they may not know that help is available or where to get it.
You should also know that while there are many gambling options for people to get hooked on today, casino slot machines are far and away the most popular among seniors. Slot machines are much more addictive then the old machines of yesteryear with spinning lemons, cherries and melons. Many of today’s slot machines offer intense sensory stimulation with large video screens, music and vibrating, ergonomic chairs.
How can you know if your mom has a gambling problem? Gamblers Anonymous offers a 20- question online test at gamblersanonymous.org that your mom can take to help determine if she has a problem. In the meantime, here are some questions you can ask to help evaluate her situation.
Is she preoccupied with gambling, constantly talking about it, or planning to gamble versus doing her normal activities?
Is she gambling more and more money to get the same level of excitement?
Is she using her retirement funds or other savings to gamble, or is she pawning or selling personal items to get money to gamble with?
Has she lost control to the point that she can’t she set a limit of time and money to spend in the casino, and stick to it?
Does she become uncomfortable, angry or lie when you ask her about her gambling activities?
If your mom answers yes to any of these questions, she may have a problem. To find help contact the National Council on Problem Gambling (ncpgambling.org), a non-profit organization that operates a 24-hour national hotline at 1-800-522-4700. They can direct you to resources in your area, including counselors who have been trained through the National Certified Gambler Counseling Program.
Send your senior questions to: Savvy Senior, P.O. Box 5443, Norman, OK 73070, or visit SavvySenior.org. Jim Miller is a contributor to the NBC Today show and author of “The Savvy Senior” book.