BY: Victoria Heath
The year I turned 21, my dad took me to the Hollywood Casino & Hotel in St. Louis, Missouri. I had actually been to a casino before during a family vacation to Las Vegas a few years earlier but was rushed through it so quickly that all I can remember is the smell of beer and what sounded like adults playing Mario Kart.
I found the Hollywood Casino mesmerizing, with its gaudy décor that resembled a charming-yet-bad 1970s movie, and the dazzling lights that jumped from every corner. It was also intimidating, however. Unfortunately, I’ve always looked about four years younger than I am, so I was stopped multiple times by security to prove that I was in fact not a high school student sporting a fake Virginia ID.
Image: Wikimedia Commons
After playing a few rounds on the slot machines, I decided to call it a night once I had made $5, and subsequently lost it all playing the Ellen DeGeneres-inspired slot game. (I’m still not sure why it exists—does Ellen advocate gambling?) As I was preparing to leave my coveted seat, I noticed an elderly woman lounging next to me with a bucket full of coins. At first, I found this weird. My grandmother was definitely not the gambling type, so I never imagined others would be. After a quick scan of the dozens of slot machines around me however, I noticed that most of the gamblers appeared to be at least 60 years old.
Being the excessively talkative person that I am, I struck up a conversation with the woman. Turns out, her name was Margaret. She was a Kansas native but retired in St. Louis about 15 years go. She had two granddaughters, one of whom went to my rival school—the University of Virginia. Margaret told me that she went to this casino at least three nights a week, which she admitted was a bit too often for her children. When I asked her why, Margaret informed me that it was not only a place to socialize, but also a place to escape the mind-numbing boredom of retirement. With a husband recently passed, and children scattered across the country, the casino was Margaret’s new safe-haven.
Casinos are stealing grandma’s money.
I’m not sure if Margaret had a gambling problem—I hope not—but unfortunately there are many retirees like her that do. Across Canada and the United States, the proliferation of casinos, as well as the growing population of senior citizens with both time and money to spend, have mixed to create problem senior gambling.
A 2005 study by Dr. John McCready and associates, for example, found that in Ontario, Canada, gambling among citizens 55 years of age and older was growing rapidly. Many senior citizens, the researchers found, were at risk for problem gambling because of several risk factors, such as “loneliness, limited financial resources, amount of leisure time after retirement, and declining health.” Through statistical analysis, the researchers also found that “more frequent participation in gambling activities among seniors was significantly associated with increased risk of experiencing gambling problems,” and “individuals who reported participating in (VLT/casino gambling) once a month or more were 29 times more likely to report experiencing any gambling problem in the past year.”
Dr. Dennis McNeilly, a clinical geropsychologist at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, says that senior citizens have become the “lifeblood of the gambling industry.” According to McNeilly, they go to casinos for “an escape.” Those suffering from anxiety or depression due to the loss of a spouse are more susceptible to developing a gambling problem.
The fact that casinos directly target senior citizens is also exacerbating the situation. Ultimately, casinos are businesses with one goal, to make money. The well-being of its patrons is not necessarily a top priority. In 2015, the global casino gaming market revenue was reportedly 182.77 billion USD. In 2012, reports indicated that just about half of all visitors to casinos were at least 50 years of age or older. To draw senior citizens in, many casinos hold “senior days,” where buffets, drinks and other amenities are deceptively cheap. According to Fayetta Martin, an assistant professor at Wayne State University, some casinos even offer “oxygen” for elderly visitors, and “boxes for diabetics to dispose needles.” After speaking to casino regulars, Martin found out that some casinos even send individuals cards saying “they were missed” if they hadn’t been to the casino for a while.
Casinos also offer plenty of space for seniors to freely socialize, and the slot machines, in particular, are popular. Unlike bingo, a favorite pastime in senior citizen centres and nursing homes, slot machines are isolation games. Dr. Natasha Schull describes them as devices that “extract maximum profit for the casino from those who play” and are “built to create addicted zombies…”
The casino and the slot machine in particular, offers senior citizens suffering from loss, isolation and marginalization an escape. Studies have shown that gambling changes brain chemistry in a similar way to cocaine, giving gamblers a high from adrenaline. This is especially dangerous for senior citizens, as an increasing number suffer from some form of dementia but do not know it. Once dementia affects the frontal lobe of the brain, researchers say, it can affect inhibitions and thus may lead to compulsive behavior, even in a seemingly healthy person.
You can make a difference by calling grandma.
Sometimes I think about Margaret and regret not asking her more questions. She seemed eager to talk, but I was also eager to leave. What if she had a gambling problem and her kids didn’t know it? Would they even do anything? There is definitely a problem that is exponentially growing in the United States, Canada and in many other developed countries. Our population is getting older but there’s no one to take care of them to the extent that is necessary. Either family members don’t have the time or resources to do so, or they simply lack the desire. So what do we expect? Can I blame Margaret for spending her days in the casino, where she feels welcomed, catered to and not alone?
Thankfully, many organizations are working to educate senior citizens about the dangers of gambling, but the root of the problem still exists. We’re failing the most elderly members of our society by abandoning them. It will take a lot to fix this problem, including revamping health systems, investing in more home-care services, and promoting innovative solutions such as this West Seattle preschool that is now located in a nursing home. But the first step towards solving this problem starts with you. There are plenty of opportunities to volunteer at nursing homes and senior citizen centres in your community, where you can help provide the residents with some much-needed companionship and interaction.
I also suggest picking up the phone and calling your grandma. Or any other senior you may know of that would love to hear your voice. It means more than you know.