When does gambling become a problem?
Gambling can be a fun diversion for adults of any age. Many people enjoy going to the horse races, picking teams in an office pool, or dreaming of lottery winnings. For seniors, especially, a weekly game of poker or a yearly visit to a casino can be an opportunity for socializing and a nice break from their regular life.
The great majority of people, young and old, gamble responsibly, but the pastime can certainly turn into a problem. By the most basic definition, people with a gambling problem are those who risk more than they can afford to lose. According to the late Ron Karpin, who worked for years as a senior outreach coordinator with the Council on Compulsive Gambling of New Jersey, many seniors only realize they're in trouble when they start gambling away rent and prescription money. "If you're 75 and you lose your life savings gambling, you are dead in the water," he was fond of saying.
What are the signs of a gambling problem?
It's easy for friends and families to overlook an older person's out-of-control gambling, says Dennis McNeilly, PhD, a clinical geropsychologist and adjunct professor at the Loyola Rome Center who has extensively studied gambling among seniors. In many cases, adult children don't know how their parents spend their time or money and don't realize the scope of the problem until they help them pay bills or balance a checkbook.
The signs of a gambling problem may be subtle, but there are some red flags to watch for, McNeilly says. An older person who constantly talks about gambling wins but rarely mentions losses may be at risk, and family members should worry when gambling starts to replace long-cherished activities.
According to the American Psychiatric Association, any of the following traits can also signal a gambling problem. Compulsive gamblers will display five or more of these characteristics, but even one or two of these signs may be a signal that help is needed, McNeilly says.
- Being preoccupied with gambling (e.g., spending much of one's time reminiscing about past gambling experiences, planning the next outing, or thinking about ways to get gambling money)
- Having to increase the stakes to maintain excitement
- Repeatedly failing to stop or cut back on gambling
- Becoming irritable when trying to cut back on gambling
- Using gambling as an escape from feelings of anxiety and depression
- Gambling to make up for recent losses ("chasing" one's losses)
- Lying to hide gambling activities
- Resorting to illegal acts such as forgery or fraud to finance gambling
- Risking or losing a relationship or job because of gambling
- Borrowing money from others to make up for gambling losses
How common are gambling problems among seniors?
Older people are the lifeblood of the gambling industry. And as gambling opportunities explode around the country, more and more seniors are catching the bug. One study found that seniors 65 and over preferred gambling and bingo to movies, lunches, and other social activities, according to the Northstar Alliance for Problem Gambling.
But as more seniors take up gambling, more fall into the trap. Research at the University of Pennsylvania found that 10 percent of people over 65 reported gambling away more money than they could afford to lose.
The literature suggests that "older adults are gambling more and more and that the proportion of pathological gamblers is increasing in this age group," according to a study published in Frontiers of Psychiatry in 2019. "The types of motivation for gambling in older adults involve the search for entertainment and the fight against boredom and loneliness." The paper called on health care authorities and policymakers to address the problem, since compulsive gambling among older people "has the potential to cause extreme harm" because few have the resources to recover if they gamble away their savings.
What increases the risk of a gambling problem?
Unlike younger gamblers, who go to casinos looking for action and excitement, many older people use gambling as an escape, McNeilly says. Not surprisingly, seniors with the greatest need for that escape are the most vulnerable to gambling problems. The great majority of older compulsive gamblers also suffer from anxiety or depression, he says. People who have recently lost a spouse, were diagnosed with a serious illness, or went through some other calamity are also at risk, he says.
What can be done about a gambling problem?
If you know anyone who shows signs of compulsive gambling, talk to him or her about the problem. Many older people manage to cut back or quit gambling on their own once they recognize the situation, experts say.
Others need expert help. One-on-one therapy with a psychologist or other professional is often the best treatment for seniors with gambling problems, McNeilly says. A therapist can not only help treat the compulsion, but also address any underlying anxiety or depression. Group therapy, such as the 12-step program offered by Gambler's Anonymous, can be highly effective as well, he says.
For a wealth of information on gambling problems and for a list of support groups near you, visit Gambler's Anonymous at http://www.gamblersanonymous.org.
Centre for Addiction and Mental Health. Responding to older adults: Gambling problems. http://www.camh.net/publications/resources_for_pro...
Landreat MG, et al. Determinants of Gambling Disorders in Elderly People -- a Systematic Review. Frontiers in Psychiatry, Nov. 25, 2019.
Gambling is increasingly popular among older adults. Northstar Alliance for Problem Gambling. Accessed June 13, 2021. https://www.northstarpg.org/research/gambling-is-increasingly-popular-among-older-adults/
AARP. Just once more: The face of addiction.
Council on Compulsive Gambling of New Jersey. 800-GAMBLER Helpline Stats.
McNeilly DP, Burke WJ. Gambling as a social activity of older adults. Int J Aging Hum Dev;52(1):19-28.