Focus on the Family

Seniors and Gambling

by Karen O'Connor

Now that their children are grown and the mortgage nearly paid off, thousands of couples, age 60 and over, have some wiggle room in their budgets. They have income from a pension, social security and/or investments. And they have something that was in short supply a few years ago when raising a family — time. Such a combination makes travel and leisure attractive — especially when coupled with a chance to win a bit of extra cash to buy a new car, take a cruise or help with the cost of braces and private school for the grandkids.

However, the temptation is great to rely on windfalls in a casino rather than setting aside a few hundred dollars in savings or an investment. Tom and Ginger know what that's like. When they were newly married in the early 1960s, they made regular trips to Las Vegas from their home in the San Fernando Valley in Southern California.

"If we needed a new mattress or a piece of furniture for the living room, we'd drive to Vegas and gamble the $50 we'd set aside to play with. Five times out of six we'd win a hundred or two," said Tom, "enough to pay for gas, a cheap motel and a few shared meals. We'd bring the rest home and buy what we needed. It was fun — and it worked."Composite based on personal experience and interview.

For a while. But that innocent game led to bigger stakes as they earned more while their family grew. Tom gambled, not only at the dice tables but also with investments. He bought part of a ranch with two buddies and lost his share, and he purchased an airplane without telling Ginger, then signed up for flying lessons so he could fly to Vegas on his own.

They managed to pay their bills but their marriage took a hit and they separated for a time before getting back together. Now they are in their 70s and the lure of the casinos is still fresh in their minds, though they no longer gamble. Both have been long-time members of Gamblers Anonymous. (

Cracking the Nest Egg

According to Liz Pulliam Weston of,1 some seniors are gambling away their nest eggs at casinos, in slot machines and around poker tables. Such practices can lead to losing one's home even if the mortgage is already paid down.

One couple opened an equity line of credit and within a few months had run up over $50,000 of debt without the monthly income to repay it in a timely manner. Replacing lost funds by going back to work or living with family members until they get back on their feet is not an option for everyone and even those who have it suffer from humiliation and shame — which often drive them back to the tables and machines to try again.

According to Weston, Florida found that retirees make up over 40 percent of visitors who return to casinos four or more times a year. For many it is simply a day of fun and good food at the cheap buffets. But for others it is a day of temptation which leads to loss and depression. The same appears to be true for compulsive bettors when it comes to an afternoon at the racetrack, a weekend in Atlantic City or a poker parlor in Los Angeles.

"Disordered gambling," according to an article abstract in American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry, "is a clinically significant problem among older adults."2 Compared with those who never or rarely gamble, compulsive bettors reported a higher incidence of anxiety, poor health, depression, paranoia and related addictions.

They also experience a high level of co-dependence — placing the needs and wants of others above their own — even if it impacts their physical and emotional health. Seniors, eager to be useful and needed, often take on the financial burdens that rightfully belong to their adult children. They jeopardize their own economic and emotional well-being by taking out loans they can't repay comfortably, handing over retirement funds, cracking their nest egg to take care of dance lessons, private school or braces for grandchildren.

As Weston reported on, "Identifying truly pathological gamblers isn't easy. They can successfully hide their compulsion for years." If enough money is available it can take years to deplete it to the point where they are found out.

One woman on the Sally Jessy Raphael Show a number of years ago admitted to going through the family savings, investments and retirement by forging her husband's signature while he was on the road as a truck driver. A retired businessman kept his gambling addiction a secret from his wife by using cash only. He siphoned off a small amount at a time from their retirement savings.

Vows to Change

Losses escalate, however, because no system beats the casino in the long run. The compulsive gambler continues to use whatever cash, credit card, credit line or savings that is avail­able to acquire the money he or she needs to keep going. When those supplies run dry, the gambler is close to bottoming out. He or she can no longer shut out the pain of reality by gambling. In fact, gambling now creates as much or more pain than life itself. At that point family members may give an ultimatum, as Kitty's husband did.

"I attended my first Gamblers Anonymous meeting and hated it," said Kitty. "I wasn't ready to change. But I had promised my husband I'd go for a month, so I did. And I kept coming back — because it started to work. 3

"In the opening readings of each GA meeting," said Kitty, "newcomers are invited to attend meetings for 90 days, and if they're not making progress after that, they can have their misery back," she said chuckling.

Kitty did not want her misery back. She committed to this spiritual program based on the model of Alcoholics Anonymous, and has remained free of compulsive gambling for twelve years. "I'm just going forward now a day at a time and thanking God for a second chance. For the first time in my life, I know what it's like to be a real winner."

Taking Inventory

Seniors who gamble with their nest egg answer "often" or "very often" to many of these statements:

1. I gamble with money from a home equity line of credit or mortgage savings.

2. I tell myself I am gambling for a good cause — to help adult children or put grandchildren through school.

3. I feel obligated to win so I can grow my nest egg.

4. I increase my bets because time is short.

5. I don't plan to sell my house so why not enjoy the equity now.

6. I am unwilling to give up the game. I deserve a little fun after working so hard.

7. I know that investments are for a rainy day. This is my rainy day.

8. It's my money to do with as I wish.

9. I don't owe anyone an explanation for what I do with my money.

10. I can always go back to work if I get into too much debt.

11. A little debt is good for the economy.

12. I know I will make a killing soon; I can feel it.

1"Are Seniors Gambling Away Their Retirement?" By Liz Pullian Watson,
3Interview conducted for a chapter in my book, Addicted To Shopping and Other Issues Women Have With Money (Harvest House Publishers, 2005). With permission.

A Dollar and a Dream

"It only takes a dollar and a dream." For many seniors that's all they need to read on a poster or on television or on the Internet to lead them to the nearest casino, card room or web site.

by Karen O'Connor

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.

Hidden Illness

According to Dr. Robert Perkinson, clinical director of Keystone Treatment Center in South Dakota, ( 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 ) ( 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.

Widespread Problem

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.

High as a Kite

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."

Not Just a Man's Pursuit

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.

Lucky Charms

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.

Steps to Recovery

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."

Taking Inventory

Seniors who are compulsive gamblers answer "often" or "very often" to many of these statements:

  1. I gamble with money I cannot afford to lose.
  2. I am preoccupied with winning and/or recouping my losses.
  3. I feel restless when I am not gambling or planning a gambling trip.
  4. I find myself increasing my bets in order to experience greater excitement.
  5. I gamble to escape my troubled life.
  6. I enjoy the status and attention I receive while gambling.
  7. I neglect my family, community, social, and recreational activities in favor of gambling.
  8. I continue to gamble despite my rising debts.
  9. I am secretive about my gambling and the money I use for betting.
  10. I have borrowed, stolen, or used retirement funds for my gambling.
  11. I cannot stop gambling, despite repeated efforts to try.
  12. I would rather gamble than do anything else.

Why Seniors Gamble

Individuals who use gambling to escape their pain have likely suppressed anger and disappointment and various other traumas throughout their life to the point where they cannot keep the lid on any longer.

by Karen O'Connor

All aboard! This bus is bound for Las Vegas. Or grab a seat on the one heading for Reno or Atlantic City. Thousands of seniors are ready to go. They'll have fun, good food at a fair price, lots of company and maybe they'll bring home a few dollars.

For most retired folks, such a trip is just one of many excursions they'll take now that the kids are grown and they have more time for leisure. But for hundreds more, an escape to Vegas or other 'sin' city is just that — an escape from the challenges that face so many of us as we age — and an escape to something more exciting than our small world.


A busload of friendly people, from the driver to the tour guide, helps chase the blues. There's conversation, as well as free snacks, comfortable reclining seats, air-conditioning and interesting scenery. Travelers can also leave the driving and luggage to someone else. For at least a couple of days they're not alone. They're part of something larger than themselves. And they'll be safe from harm as there are guards in and around each casino keeping track of customers 24 hours a day.


Gambling takes people away from life's problems with money, family, friendships, health. Even the physically challenged man or woman can gamble. There is plenty of room for a wheelchair in front of a slot machine or a crap table. And you can sit all day or evening and play bingo or keno. Most of these people are not hard-core addicts to begin with. They are nurturing and caring by nature — just the opposite of an action gambler who takes risks with money for the thrill of it or because he or she likes living on the edge.

Individuals who use gambling to escape their pain have likely suppressed anger and disappointment and various other traumas throughout their life to the point where they cannot keep the lid on any longer. They may feel hopeless and helpless. A friend or family member may suggest they take up a hobby or go on a trip to feel better. When they discover gambling, they notice a feeling of relief or escape from pain — at least temporarily. And so they continue, afraid to give it up for fear of going back to their misery.

Sadness and Grief

People of any age face sad times throughout life, but sadness is particularly acute for many older men and women as they face their own immortality, the death of a spouse or sibling and declining health in themselves and in those they love. After a full and vibrant life they are suddenly immobilized by the reality of a major loss. Some retreat to their favorite chair in front of the television and zone out. Others stay busy so they won't have to think. And still more escape through food, prescription drugs, alcohol — or gambling.

Like thousands of others who took up gambling after the loss of a loved one, Gina is in Gamblers Anonymous trying to live one day at a time. "It's hard," she said. "I actually miss the good times–or what seemed like good times." By the time she quit gambling she owed two casinos $105,000, and had drained her savings and business accounts of nearly $200,000. The only thing she had left was her condo­minium. "There's no going back," she added. "I know that. I also know that if I had continued on, I'd be on the street today–a bag lady."


As people age, a host of fears crop up. Fear of death. Fear of terminal illness. Fear of inadequate income to cover late life expenses. Fear of losing one's home. Fear of dementia. Fear of dependence on family members. One could drown in a sea of fear if he or she gives in to it. There is always something to be afraid of. Reading the daily newspaper or listening to the latest reports on television do nothing to take them away.

So what is an aging person to do? For many the answer is simple. Hop on a bus or plane and head to the nearest casino. The moment they walk through the front door, they are transported into another world — one totally unlike the one they left behind. It's a world of glamour and glitz, bright lights, friendly drink and food servers, and the ka-ching of coins dropping into slot machines flashing with the promise of a fortune ready to break loose. At least for a time troubles and worries disappear — and if in the process they lose a little money, or even a lot, so be it. Escape is a powerful drug, especially for individuals who are basically decent people who are simply trying to get through life the best way they know how.

From Exhilaration to Desperation

Their first experience may be nothing more than a social afternoon or evening with family or friends. They gamble for recreation, much like buying a raffle ticket at a school fund-raising event or buying a lottery ticket at a local gas station. The thought of a possible win takes their mind off their concerns and gives them something to look forward to. Soon the stakes are higher. They return to a card room or a casino and put a little more money on the line.

Winning is not so much about the cash as it is about how gambling makes them feel — empowered, grown-up, even a little bit 'bad.' They've overstepped their own conventional boundaries and it's a heady feeling. Then comes the chasing stage—where they try to cover their losses, which leads to more gambling and certain desperation where the losses far overshadow any gains, and finally to hopelessness — where they discover there is no way out. No amount of gambling will recover the loss that matters most — self-worth, integrity, honesty. At that point some people take their own lives. Others, with the help of those who love them, surrender to recovering from their self-destructive behavior.

According to the Arizona Council on Compulsive Gambling, "The gambling addicts must be offered the hope of an alternative way of dealing with the underlying factors that led them to want the escape-at-all-cost anesthetizing quality of slot machines, video poker, keno, bingo or whatever type of gambling they became addicted to."1 Not an easy task. But one that can be accomplished.

A twelve-step program, such as Gamblers Anonymous or Overcomers Outreach can, in time, lead to a more satisfying way to cope with the past and live in the present. Private and group counseling and/or outpatient or inpatient rehabilitation such as that offered by KeyStone Treatment Center can also be very beneficial for breaking the cycle and coming to terms with the often excruciating pain underlying the addiction.

Those who participate in such programs also discover the value of sharing their experience, strength, and hope with others, who in turn share theirs with the people who come after them. As individuals help one another, they help themselves, and little by little they exchange pain and grief and loneliness and loss for peace and joy and love and the assurance of God's grace in every area of their lives.

Help and Hope: Gambling Isn't About Money After All

No lasting transformation can occur in our lives without giving God complete control. And yet no discipline has been more misused by individuals, families, schools and religious leaders.

by Karen O'Connor

Men and women committed to giving up gambling soon discover the real issues they face are not about money after all — but rather about their relationship with God. True change is about turning our lives and our circumstances over to the Lord so we can use the practical tools of recovery meetings and counseling in a God-directed way. Prayer, the vitality and breath of the spiritual life, is the primary means to that goal.

Richard Foster, author of Celebration of Discipline, says that prayer "brings us into the deepest and highest work of the human spirit. Real prayer is life creating and life changing."

Prayer leads us into the quieting presence of God where we can hear His guidance. "I will instruct you and teach you in the way you should go; I will counsel you and watch over you" (Ps. 32:8 NIV).

Recovering From Spiritual Bankruptcy

What a comforting promise! God will close the old ac­count and open a new one in partnership with Him — a spiri­tual bank account that deals in the currency of six spiritual disciplines: surrender, service, solitude, simplicity, sol­vency, and serenity — His gifts to anyone who will accept and practice them.

The Discipline of Surrender

No lasting transformation can occur in our lives without giving God complete control. And yet no discipline has been more misused by individuals, families, schools and religious leaders.

Surrender has a bad reputation. In some circles, it suggests a form of bond­age, a giving away of all that is valuable and unique about the individual. The discipline of surrender, however, has nothing to do with bondage. Giving up is releasing to God for His safekeeping those people and situa­tions we have no control over anyway. We can then walk in freedom, knowing with cer­tainty that the One who knows all things, who is for all time, will bring about in our lives what is right and good and pure and just, not only in the financial realm, but in every area of our lives.

The Discipline of Service

Serving is giving something of yourself to another­ whether money, material goods, a listening ear, a prayer, a portion of time, a talent or a treasure. Men and women who serve from the spirit know when to say yes and when to say no — what part is theirs and what part belongs to another — because they stay attuned to the Lord for guidance.

That same clarity is available to each one of us. When our service is God-directed, there will be less and less struggle. We will not need to prove our worth. What is done in secret will be rewarded in heaven — where it matters.

The Discipline of Silence

Many people think of silence as the absence of sound, just as the dictionary defines the word. But as a spiritual discipline, silence is much more. It is also a presence — God's presence in quiet communion with our presence.

In repentance and rest is your salvation... (Isa. 30: 15 NIV)

Be still, and know that I am God. (Ps. 46:10 NIV)

I will lead the blind by ways they have not known. (Isa. 42:16 NIV)

Silence is not an easy discipline to embrace. It requires a step of faith, a willingness to stop the noise and listen for what's on the other side.

Wisely, the writer of Ecclesiastes says there is "a time to be silent and a time to speak" (3:7). Those of us who wish to practice the discipline of silence will pay attention to those words. As a result, we will gradually notice we do have the ability to give up our gambling addiction and to resolve other problems, as well. Wisdom and discernment will be there at the precise moments we need them.

The Discipline of Simplicity

Simplicity encourages us to be, as the apostle Paul experienced, content in plenty or in want, because simplicity, like all the disci­plines, begins on the inside. When we are simple within, we are free without. We have no need to acquire attention or to accumulate possessions. We can drive an old car or a new and we can enjoy small pleasures — a walk in nature, a good book, planting flowers, preparing a simple meal. Simplicity: the discipline that brings us down to where we ought to be so we can move into a solvent lifestyle, free of gambling and of living on the edge.

The Discipline of Solvency

Solvency — the ability to pay all that we owe — is the goal of men and women who desire real freedom from the indebtedness that comes from compulsive gambling. But there remains for many of us a great gap between the desire and the reality. That is when Twelve Step programs such as Gamblers Anonymous and other support groups can be so helpful. In these meetings, you can share your tragedies and your triumphs and be heard, under­stood, and loved.

However, solvency is not a discipline we can prac­tice without support. What has taken a lifetime to dismantle cannot be restored through sheer willpower. But we can take the initial steps that prepare us for the support of others by confronting our patterns with money and asking for help to change them.

Practicing solvency in our lives also includes a willingness to learn all we can about practical financial matters that affect our everyday affairs — especially in the mature years where retirement and income for late life is so important to manage well. The discipline of solvency is the outworking of an inward commitment to become good stewards of the re­sources God provides. A solvent lifestyle, then, results in a deep peace that paves the way for a life of serenity.

The Discipline of Serenity

Serenity is a state of calm, of peace, a deep inner knowing that all is well. This is the plane of life we most desire. Thankfully serenity is not tied to any one practice or any one area of life. It is, instead, a spiritual discipline that brings about a state of total well-being as a person comes to rest in God. To be serene is to be accepting, to hold life, self and other people with an open hand instead of a clenched fist, knowing one's power is limited and effective only to the extent that God is in control. Finally, and most important, they ask for the wisdom to know the difference between what they can change and what they cannot.

Streams in the Desert

As we take up the spiritual journey, we can turn to the disciplines, like streams in a desert, to refresh our spirits when we feel dry and to guide us when we feel lost. And for those times when we feel strong and sure-footed, the disciplines enable us to explore new terrain with the confidence that God is with us every step of the way.

For "For the LORD God is a sun and shield; the LORD bestows favor and honor; no good thing does he withhold from those whose walk is blameless." (Ps. 84:11 NIV).