The first week of August is National Responsible Gaming Education Week.
Over the last two years, I have traveled through casinos in Louisiana, Iowa, New York and Florida talking to older Americans to learn first-hand why they come, why they stay, and why it's so dangerous.
In honor of Responsible Gaming Education Week, let me share what I've what learned:
Why They Come: Casinos Cater to Older Americans
Casinos make their older customers feel welcome and safe, but their motives are far from pure. People over 65 tend to go to the casino during the off-peak weekday mornings and afternoons. This makes them a highly desirable market. Older people help to keep thousands of slot machines operating during slower daytime hours. Casinos cater to their special needs by providing wheelchairs, scooters, adult diapers, and other amenities for customers with mobility and health problems.
In Baton Rouge, I met Carol and Herb. They are both in the early 80's and they prefer video poker. When asked why they favor coming to the casino over other forms of entertainment, Carol said, "They take care of us." If they win any money, a security guard escorts them to their car. They feel safe. This manufactured kindness is especially appealing to people who can be lonely, isolated, or feel invisible in the larger community.
Casinos offer free food, free drinks and "free play" in order to entice older Americans to spend more time and money on the machines. Some casinos make phone calls to older customers to inform them that they are "saving" their favorite machine for their next visit. Some coordinate bus trips from senior centers to take advantage of a "third of the month club:" seniors who head to the casino after they receive their Social Security checks. Psychology Today reported in February 2014 on the predatory practices of casinos towards seniors, surmising:
"Predation involves monitoring older adults' gambling behavior and promoting both the frequency – through comping – or the amount – through interest-free loans, cashless gambling, free alcohol and medication pills. When you have older adults with obvious cognitive impairment then you need to question if such predatory behavior constitutes financial elder abuse under state laws."
Why They Stay: Older Americans Prefer Slot Machines
Seventy-five percent of older Americans favor the slot machine over other forms of gambling. Far different from the old fashioned, "one-armed-bandits" with spinning reels and coins pouring forth, modern slots and similar electronic gambling devices are computerized machines that use light, sound, and repetitive motion to create a hypnotic "zone" where players lose track of time and money.
For example, at the World Resorts Casino I met Judy at the Prince of Lightening slot machine. She wore a retractable cord connecting a player's card on her belt to the machine. Casinos use these cards to track when gamblers come and go and how much they spend. In return, gamblers get rewards points to keep coming back.
I had to speak loudly over the constant din of machine sound and repeat myself several times to catch her attention. I asked her how to play.
"You want four of the ladies in a row, and the lightening guy is always good," she answered, without taking her gaze from her screen.
I asked if she came to the casino often, and Judy replied, still staring at her machine, "Uh, two or three times a week."
"Do you like coming?"
"Oh, I guess ... it's something to do," she shrugged, still fixated on the screen.
This sensation of "the zone" can be intensely desirable for people who seek escape from their troubles. For older Americans, who may crave relief from boredom or from the pains of aging, the slot machine is their drug of choice. Like other drugs, slot machines can be a fast track to addiction. According to one study, people who play slots are likely to experience more rapid onset of gambling addiction than people who engage in more traditional forms of gambling.
Studies also show older Americans may be at higher risk for gambling addiction than the general population. For example, Las Vegas offers not only miles of casinos but also extensive treatment services for compulsive gambling. As the senior population has increased in Las Vegas, the number of seniors addicted to gambling has increased as well. One treatment center reports that 40% of those treated for gambling addiction are seniors.
Why it's Dangerous: Gambling Affects Everyone, Even Non-Gamblers
Slot machines and other electronic gambling devices rank as both the most highly addictive for individuals AND highly profitable for casinos: a dangerous combination. Casinos are highly motivated to attract potential slot machine addicts, which is bad not only for individuals, but their families and our communities as a whole.
I recently interviewed Dr. Damon Dye, who operates Triangle Resolutions, a counseling center in the Tampa Bay area. He has been treating gamblers and their spouses for over ten years. I first became acquainted with Dr. Dye when I traveled to Tampa to release the Seniors in Casino Land report. I appreciated the way that his work focuses on the spouses and families of problem gamblers. As I researched the impact of gambling on older Americans, a statistic from the Journal of Gerontological Social Work concerning the communal impact of gambling stuck with me: at least 5 other people are adversely affected by an individual with a gambling problem.
Dye's recently released book, Know When to Hold 'Em was written for spouses and loved ones of problem gamblers to provide the emotional tools to deal with their loved one's addiction. He begins with stressing how problem gambling is a "hidden addiction" that shapes how the individual thinks about money and purpose in life. Treatment involves the entire family system as they grapple with the shame and guilt of the addiction. His book helped me better understand how to recognize problem gambling behavior, what interventions in treatment tend to be effective, and how best to support the loved ones who support someone in the throes of addiction.
Some predict that casinos will become a leading institution for eldercare, or in the words of journalist Gary Rivlin, "day care for the elderly." Indeed, the state-sponsored commercial casinos have developed a large body of market research on the wants and needs of retired Americans. But casinos are not public service institutions. They exist to make profits for their owners and shareholders and to produce revenue for the state.
As regional casinos and electronic gaming proliferate state-by-state and neighborhood-by-neighborhood, we will be wise to pause during National Gaming Education Week to learn about the true risks of gambling.
This article originally appeared here.