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Senior Gamblers Testing the Odds

The Gray and the Green

WebMD Feature

July 2, 2001 -- If you've been to a casino lately, you've no doubt seen them: senior citizens piling out of buses and filing up before beckoning blackjack tables and slot machines. And besides casino gaming, there's bingo just about every night of the week, and state and national lottery games galore, not to mention the growth of riverboat and Indian casinos and Internet betting.

For many suspected reasons -- age-related cognitive decline, boredom, underlying depression -- older adults seem to be more vulnerable to problem gambling than other age groups. And for seniors on fixed incomes, the prospects of ever fully recovering from gambling losses can be dim.

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Which is why experts in aging, gambling, and problem and compulsive gambling met with members of the gaming industry at the University of Florida in Gainesville last month to develop policies and procedures aimed at identifying and helping seniors with gambling problems.

A Growing Problem

"Most seniors gamble safely, but we know that a certain percentage will develop gambling problems in any age group, and the greater numbers of senior citizens who participate in gambling mean that there are greater numbers who are developing problems," says Pat Fowler, executive director of the Florida Counsel on Compulsive Gambling.

"Certain circumstances that are present among this age group, but not younger gamblers, may make them a bit more vulnerable," she says. For example, seniors often have a tremendous amount of time on their hands after retirement and have limited options in how to fill it, Fowler says.

In Florida, where many snowbirds go to retire, the gambling options are almost limitless. There's bingo of every stripe -- from the corner church to high-stakes games. There's jai alai, dog and horse racing, lucrative lotteries, 26 floating casinos that deport twice daily and drop anchor in international water, and six Indian reservations that provide machine gambling, card games, and more.

Seniors thought to be at special risk include those who have sustained recent or cumulative losses of significant others, who have undergone a loss of status, who have undiagnosed depression, and those who have always gambled. But for the majority of seniors who develop problems, there aren't clear warning signs that trouble is looming.

"They have lived an exemplary life, worked hard, taken care of their family, educated their children, and did all the right things only to find themselves after retirement involved in an activity they can't control," Fowler says.

"Many are looking for an escape from all sorts of losses in their lives, whether loss of a spouse, a profession (after retirement), their health, their physical abilities, their physical beauty. Gambling is one activity they can engage in regardless of physical problems. There aren't many other activities that are stimulating and exciting that they can do; gambling is one of the few left," she says.

"The danger is for those who lose control over gambling, because the impact that it has on their life is different than for their younger counterparts," Fowler says. "They can't start a new profession or build a new nest egg. It's just not a possibility for most of these folks, so the impact is permanent."

Still the situation is not hopeless, she says. "You may not be able to recoup the financial loss, but you certainly can recuperate or recover your life."

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