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It's a Good Bet You'll Find Lots of Elders in Casinos

Oct 14, 2010 – 9:10 AM
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Robert W. Stock

Robert W. Stock Contributor

(Oct. 14) -- With revenues battered by the recession, the casino industry is ever more dependent upon the steady flow of cash from us old folks. We're holding up our end and then some.

In Las Vegas, for example, where the overwhelming majority of visitors hit the casinos, people 65 and older accounted for 16 percent of visitors in 2005. It jumped to 22 percent in 2008 and 2009 -- a 37 percent rise in three years.

"It only makes sense," David G. Schwartz, director of the Center for Gaming Research at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, told AOL News. "Given the economic problems, there has been a major drop-off in younger people and business travelers. The casinos have to look more to the older people on fixed incomes."

Not that they've been ignoring us. The free bus rides, discounts on medication, coupons for free play or food, and toaster oven giveaways are all part of casinos' individually targeted marketing campaigns.

a senior citizen plays a slot machine
J. Pat Carter, AP
Mary Pamillo was among the first people to play the new Las Vegas style slot machines Jan. 28, 2008, at the Seminole Hard Rock Casino in Hollywood, Fla.

In years past, only the regulars at the table games were entitled to sign up for so-called "comp cards," which reward players' loyalty with complimentary rooms or shows. Now that slot machines have replaced table games as the major source of casino revenues, the slot devotees -- including most older gamblers -- are eligible for comp cards.

The cards enable casinos to track how much you win or lose on each visit and adjust their enticements accordingly. If you usually drop about $200 and you've lost $300 on the last few visits, you can expect to receive some extra goodies.

Beyond the material incentives, casino employees are trained to greet older regulars like long-lost relatives, helping them to get settled comfortably for their gambling sessions.

"That pseudo-friendship is an important attraction for many older adult gamblers," said Peter Lichtenberg, director of the Institute of Gerontology at Wayne State University. "It fills a lot of their social needs."

Over the last several decades, as new lotteries and casinos have proliferated, elders' traditional distaste for gambling has faded away. Between 1975 and 1998, the percentage of people 65 and over who gambled during their lifetime soared from 35 to 80, and it's still growing. Aside from the lottery, casino games are their favorite bet.

Playing for money is a kick, as I've discovered in my occasional visits to casinos and my decades-old, twice-a-month poker game. But it can too often be a kick in the butt, as well, especially when you're playing the low-percentage slots. What is it that keeps elders coming back in droves, primarily to play against a machine that almost always wins?

Studies of older casino gamblers tend to list the same half-dozen or so possible motivations, including:
  • The chance to socialize.
  • Something to do to ease their boredom.
  • An opportunity to make a buck.
  • The thrill and excitement of the gambling itself.
  • An escape from problems at home.
However, the researchers part company as to which of those reasons is most important.

Earlier studies, for instance, often emphasized the social factor and downplayed the opportunity to win money as a major motivator, while some recent research has found the opposite.

In his studies of elderly casino goers in Detroit, Wayne State's Lichtenberg found that two-thirds of respondents said they gambled to win. More than 20 percent hoped to escape feelings of sadness over the loss of a loved one.

"No one should be going to a casino expecting to win money," he told AOL News, "and the slots are isolating, not likely to lift your spirits for very long."

In fact, those two motivators are kin to the 10 behaviors that define the recognized mental disorder called pathological gambling. They include committing illegal acts to finance gambling and lying to family and others about the extent of gambling addiction. Any five will earn you a diagnosis of pathological gambler.

Lower down the scale are so-called problem gamblers, who may exhibit one or two of the 10 behaviors, and at-risk gamblers, who show signs of moving up the scale.

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Elderly bettors are less likely to have an unhealthy fixation on gambling than other age groups. One major study put the total number of adult problem and pathological gamblers at 7.5 million among the 125 million adults who had gambled in the previous year -- a 6 percent rate. The overall rate among 65 and over gamblers is believed to be much lower, in the 2 percent range.

Still, the numbers add up. One study estimated that there were 750,000 problem or pathological gamblers in California. Elders accounted for a tenth of them, and for a tenth of the at-risk gamblers.

When old people do become addicted to gambling, the consequences can be especially devastating. Many of them are poor, living alone, and/or suffering from depression and some degree of dementia. Once their retirement nest egg is gone, they have no way of restoring it.

Casinos may be fun for most of us elders, but for the rest, they can be a glittering, red-carpeted road to ruin.
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