From there thousands of retired men and women begin a slow descent into compulsive gambling, a behavior that affects the gambler, his or her family, employer and community.
Lydia's husband of 44 years passed away leaving her financially set for life. But grief and loneliness overwhelmed her. She joined a senior club to meet people and have fun. The group sponsored a bus trip to a gaming casino east of San Diego, where she lived. "That was the beginning of the end for me," she admitted. "I had money to burn — to gamble," she corrected and chuckled. "And I enjoyed the feeling of watching the wheel spin and the dice fall in my favor — part of the time. It was enough to bring me back. I won a little each time. I might have lost overall, but I didn't care. I was having a good time and I believed I deserved it."
Lydia continued her gambling pattern until she went through $200,000 before seeking help on the counsel of her son.
According to Dr. Robert Perkinson, clinical director of Keystone Treatment Center in South Dakota, (www.robertperkinson.com) compulsive gambling "is called the hidden illness since there is neither smell on the breath nor stumbling of steps or speech. Nonetheless, a gambling addiction is as debilitating as alcohol or drug addiction."
The National Council on Problem Gambling (NCPA ) (www.ncpgambling.org) states that such activity is characterized by "increasing preoccupation with gambling, a need to bet more money more frequently, restlessness or irritability when attempting to stop, chasing losses," and an inability to stop despite mounting debt and serious consequences to personal and family well-being.
The NCPA estimates that "two million (1 percent) of U.S. adults are estimated to meet criteria for pathological gambling in a given year. Another 4-6 million (2-3 percent) would be considered problem gamblers." And among them are a growing number of seniors.
As recently as 70-80 years ago, gambling was illegal in the United States. Today, busloads of senior men and women from senior centers go off to Las Vegas, Reno and other cities for a weekend of gambling. Many churches hold benefit casino nights and bingo games. Friday Night Bingo has long been a popular draw for retired persons, whether or not they attend the church that sponsors it.
One man in his 60s, now in treatment for a gambling addiction, and who asked to remain unnamed, said he had no idea that what he considered to be innocent betting could lead to addictive behavior. His father had been an alcoholic and he vowed not to follow in his footsteps, so he turned to the lottery instead. Next he went on a trip to Las Vegas with a group of friends and that did it. "I came home high as a kite. I won a few dollars and I got a lot of attention. I hadn't felt that good in years." He looked for more bus trips and they were easy to find. He turned all his attention to gambling, losing interest in friends and volunteer work, and he cut down time spent with his children and grandchildren. "I was obsessed with the next trip and the next."
Rita, a recovering gambler from Los Angeles, believes there are a lot of closet gamblers among seniors — particularly among women. Gambling has typically been a man's pursuit. "It's OK for men to go to the track, play poker or shoot craps, but it's not OK for women," she said, her tone underscoring the cultural bias. "But women? They should be at home raising the kids or helping with grandkids."
In truth, problem gambling among women is on the rise, possibly due to the increase of card rooms, bingo halls, state lotteries, and more recently, Internet gambling — forms of betting that are particularly attractive to senior women, especially those without a mate.
Many seniors today — both men and women — also have more discretionary income and more leisure hours than their peers of two or three decades ago. Even if one lives in a senior living complex, retirement home or care facility, all he or she needs is a computer and a credit card to get involved with 'invisible' gambling.
Some seniors claim they wear a particular shirt or blouse, or pick out a favorite seat at a gaming table. They're convinced their 'luck' turns on these choices. Still others, such as Dotty, perform little rituals such as circling the casino three times before sitting down to play or collecting quarters in a jar reserved for her time at the slot machines. A few favor a certain dealer or prefer a specific time of the day or evening for playing their favorite game. The process becomes almost a mystical experience. The gambler is afraid to depart from such actions for fear of losing his or her winning touch.
Some individuals focus on affirmations, visualizations, willpower and other mind-control techniques in an effort to "find favor," as one woman put it, "with the gambling gods."
Such behavior can become addictive in itself and have frightening and far-reaching spiritual consequences for the men and women involved, including dependence on psychic readings and other forms of spiritual bondage in order to create a lucky streak.
Dr. Perkinson focuses on three steps to recovery at his treatment center. He claims people need to:
• get honest about their addiction
• go to Gamblers Anonymous meetings and participate with others
• get on a spiritual path to God.
"Ninety percent of addicts who take these actions stay clean," he said.
Perkinson also made the point that "many people know God’s teachings, but they are helpless to live by them because of the addictive nature of gambling. Addiction stands in your way of God," he said resolutely. "Gambling and money become your God. Because of this, gamblers live in hell. Only God can release them from slavery."
Seniors who are compulsive gamblers answer "often" or "very often" to many of these statements: