Seniors continue to be one of the fastest growing groups of gamblers and with the proliferation of casinos in this country and the aging of America, its safe to assume that the problem will continue to get worse. As if casinos with their slots and table games and States promoting their endless lottery games are not enough, the legalization of “sports betting” has added yet another layer to the problem with an eye on legalizing on-line gaming across the country.
Before my retirement, I was the director of a hospital based program for HIV/AIDS patients with addiction disorders and a licensed addictions counselor in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. I was also a trainer for the Massachusetts Council on Compulsive Gambling -- a private, non-profit public health agency. During this time, I provided treatment for scores of seniors with gambling and drug addictions.
I worked with a grandmother named Catherine from the Boston area. She went to the casino in Connecticut at least three times a week, playing “strictly slots”, as she would say, in an attempt to minimize the problem she was facing. But the hours she would spend there also included free drinks and plenty of cigarettes, which contributed to an alcohol problem and the exacerbation of her COPD.
Catherine started with the penny slots, moved on to the quarter machines and finally spending her time at the dollar slots, “that’s where the real money can be made,” she told me. She entered treatment after her daughter found unpaid tax bills, her electricity shut off and an empty refrigerator. She was living alone after the death of her husband and used the social interactions at the casino as a replacement for her five-decade long marriage.
“The casino became my new family,” Catherine continued. “I made friends, not only other older people but the waitresses all knew me by name, they seemed to really care. I would give them big tips and they spent tie talking with me. If I was feeling down, I would walk in and just being there brought me back to life. There was no place else I wanted to be!”
“After Art died,” she told me, “everything just got worse. We would enjoy a
glass of wine with dinner each night but that was it. Now I drink first thing in the morning and because of my COPD, my coughing has gotten worse since I smoke more now, too. When I got his life insurance money, I thought I had it made but it’s all gone. So are the other savings we had. All I have now are his VA survivor benefits, my own social security and a house that I will probably be losing.”
Catherine had three children and four grandchildren, all of whom were scattered around the country. It wasn’t until the holiday of that year that her oldest daughter found the truth of how bad life became for her mother.
“When she came, I had completely lost control of everything in my life. I was hooked on poker slots and spent more time at the casino than at home. When my car would break down, I called a friend I had met there to pick me up and take me down. I started borrowing money from people and the more I borrowed, the more depressed I became and the more I would drink,” she said.
“Right around Thanksgiving, I had really hit a new low. My electric was off
since August, I had no heat or hot water. I kept a gym membership that was ten bucks a month just so I cold shower and stay warm and when I wasn’t at the casino, I was at the senior center where I could eat and get cigarettes from people. By the second week of December, I was thinking about suicide. If my daughter hadn’t arrived, I don’t know if I would have been here. I was so ashamed when she found me, so ashamed.”
Catherine attended a residential treatment program and was referred for financial counseling. She was connected with an elder law attorney who managed her bank accounts, helped her catch up on her bills and was even able to save her house. But the truth is, she was one of the success stories. There are many more who end up losing everything as a result of their gambling addiction and the other resulting problems.
The psychology of casinos are, if nothing else, fascinating. There is a tried and true model that they all use and it obviously works, even if you know what they are doing to you. As Catherine said, when she was feeling depressed, “just being there brought me back to life. There was no place else I wanted to be!” That’s what they are counting on.
In this first part of gambling and seniors, we will look at those things that casino operators do to keep you captivated by the fantasy land where the promise of striking it rich keeps you glued to your seat.
No Clocks In Sight
In the age of cell phones, people have stopped wearing watches. And when someone is engrossed in the whirling slot machine, reaching into their pocket to take out the phone can interfere with the rush, so time passes and passes. Casino operators know this and take advantage of it. Think about the environment -- the spinning wheels, the ringing bells -- all distractions and all things designed to keep the player from caring about the time.
Clockless walls eliminate the reminder of how much time you have been sitting and losing money while the minutes meld into hours and day moves onto night. The expectation is that the player will only become aware of time when they are thirsty so they also keep you plied with refreshments.
It’s a well concocted plan.
No Windows, No Problem
So we talked about day moving onto night but surely you would notice the sun
going down and the moon hanging in the sky, right? Wrong. There are also no windows in the casino.
OK, they have them by the entrances and exits, but once the monster swallows you, the outdoors become a memory. Think about this, if you could see the light outside changing, your body clock would kick in and tell you it’s time to go. Once it became dark, you would start to feel sleepy and that would move you to leave. But they got you hooked.
They also don’t want you seeing anything interesting happening outside. I remember about ten years ago, I was at a concert at a local casino when a truck fire occurred in the parking lot outside one of the entrances to the building. Fire trucks, smoke and flames caused patrons to leave their seats and walk towards the doors to watch. Casino security moved in, bringing along with them curtains to secure the area and closed down the entrance. Of course, the detoured everyone through one of the busiest casino areas.
Very smart and surely something they plan and practice on a regular basis. As the saying goes, never let a good crisis go to waste.
What is more exciting than the inside of a casino. People yelling when they win, lights flashing, sirens and the whirring sound of the electronic slots that are strangely hypnotic. They are all meant to convey one message – you can win, after all, others are! In reality, the only winners are the casinos. But by the sounds of things, you would never believe that.
Imagine another scenario. You walk into a gaming room where all the customers are losing and sitting around complaining. No bells ringing, no lights flashing, just people upset and broke. Would you spend a dime there?
Probably not, so operators know just how to keep things lively and just enough people winning to stimulate the free flow of cash.
It Feels Just Like Home
Even with all the sensory stimulation, the rest of the casino lighting is low,
mellow and inviting. It’s reminiscent of your living room or sitting around a fire drinking a hot chocolate or warm latte -- and who wants to get up and leave that type of setting?
The operators want you to feel cozy and safe, that’s what keeps you spending and feeling good about gambling. After all, if they care enough about you to make this such a comfortable place, they must also care about your finances, too. Just a few more spins and you’ll win, just wait and see -- they count on that thinking.
Ever look at the carpet? Have you ever seen one that was just plain green, or blue or even yellow? Doubtful. And there is also a reason for that.
Most of us would never put a casino pattern carpet in our homes because as a friend of mine said one time, “looking at the floor makes me seasick!” And it’s meant to due that. The patterns are swirls, lines, circles and splashes of color. These patterns become mesmerizing to the mind and strangely pleasing after a while.
How about the walls? They are often painted shades of red or gold, which to the mind is comforting and evokes a feeling of safety. Again, all designed to keep you feeling homey and spending your cash.
And when it comes to cleanliness, you will see workers cleaning everywhere. They are in the casinos, the bars and the bathrooms -- the only place you may see more cleaners is at Disneyland. Keeping the place spotless tells your mind that the operators value you and want you to be safe and healthy. Again, makes you feel at home. You are part of the family, by golly.
Do you go shopping at the stores in the casino? You certainly know that the prices are higher than other retail outlets on the outside, but you buy anyway. Why? One of the reasons is the ambient music being played. It's always soft, easy to listen to and keeps the shopper in a trance like state and again, relaxed and ready to spend freely.
Services Other Than Gambling
After sitting for hours at a slot, drinking the free alcohol, smoking cigarette after
cigarette, and becoming more frustrated at losing, the body still has it’s biological needs -- you need to use the bathroom and eat something.
To find a restroom or a food court, you must go deeper into the bowels of the casino. Many of these services are usually wedged in the back of the place, designed to keep you further away from the exits. Often, a short cut takes you through another in-house casino, and it's not by accident. If you are ready to leave and have been lucky enough to have won and ready to cash in your winnings, walking to the exit that takes you through yet another casino is another trick designed to separate you from your winnings. It's a version of "Point of Sale" (POS) marketing.
Think about going food shopping. Grocery stores commonly place merchandise shelving in between each available register, featuring items such as magazines, candy, gum, and batteries. Sodas are often displayed in a small refrigeration unit at the end of these displays. Items near the POS frequently move at one-and-a-half to three times as fast as the same product on a shelf elsewhere in the store, and some items in high-traffic supermarkets have been reported to sell as much as 64 times faster. In a casino, this gives you one more chance to win, or take what you did win and try to win again.
Coming Close but No Cigar
Nothing, but nothing, gets the juices flowing like a near win. Think about a baseball game. What’s more exciting than a home run? A near home run that’s nearly over the fence until it is grabbed by the opposing team.
When the scene is replayed over and over, the adrenaline flows with every replay. The same with a near win at a casino. You swing for the fences knowing that sooner or later, you'll get that home run. Unfortunately, like in baseball, there are many more strikeouts than round trippers.
Slot machines are set up to give smaller payouts leaving you are just one star, one cherry or one dollar sign away from the big hit. In Blackjack, players always win hands giving hope to other players that everyone will walk away with money, so they keep betting and being until the money is gone. The house will never lose.
Like playing craps? The die are in your hands so you are in control, right? Well, you may think so but once again, the odds are always with the house. By watching near winners, the casino is giving the players a false sense of security while cleaning out your account.
We Like You So Much We’ll Give You Free Things
Called “comps” by casino operators, these free giveaways keep the blood
flowing for the casino. Employees give away free food, tickets to shows, buffets and maybe even a cup of quarters. But like the famous potato chip commercial of year's past, they know you can’t stop at just one. These things keep you coming back.
I remember talking to one client who told me about the free shows she watched followed by a "meet and greet" with the talent and a great party afterwards. I asked her how much that show cost her, she replied, “It was free, I just told you that!” I clarified my question by asking her how much she lost at the casino that day, to which he replied, “Close to a thousand, I suppose.” That was the true cost of the show, I told her.
She could have purchased tickets for $80.00 a seat, eaten at the buffet for $29.00 and gone home with $900 more in her pocket. There is nothing free in casino world. Remember, whatever a casino gives out in comps, they reap back a hundred-fold.
Have A Drink On Us
I suppose this could be classified as a freebie but the discussion about consuming alcohol while gambling is a different subject with serious ramifications. Like we discussed earlier with our client Catherine, her casino addiction also led to an alcohol problem.
The operators know that drinks will keep the player cheerful and willing to spend. The waitresses will run to you when the glass is empty, not only keeping you filled with a mind-altering substance but appealing to your narcissistic side. Imagine, you are so important that the house is paying attention to you. Yes, another game played by casino operators.
If you are playing blackjack, the casino operators know the more alcohol you consume, the more of a sloppy game you will play. As the brain becomes more intoxicated, basic decisions can no longer be made. Rational thinking is out the door as impulse takes over. Need we say more?
We All Want To Feel Important
I mentioned this earlier and will elaborate on it here. Nearly all of us fall for the
trick of others making us feel important. Those who visit the casinos and play the penny slots are less likely to get "comped" than those who spend time at blackjack tables -- it all comes down to the money.
Those who win big surely do get the attention of the casino operators through free hotel rooms, upgrades to existing rooms and high price meals at the best steak house in the building. Although the casinos may be putting out big money up front, they know by appealing to the players sense of importance, they will get their money back and then some.
Keeping big winners playing so the money does not leave the building is a crucial part of the casino business.
A Maze Called A Casino
If you could fly over top of the casino, you would see a layout similar to the corn field maze that pops up around Halloween. The only difference is, the cornfield maze has a planned layout, the casino is designed to confuse you.
When you enter one casino in the building, the dollar machines may be at the entrance while at another, it’s the quarter machines. This is designed to confuse – purposely.
You will find little nooks where machines are tucked away and large areas where tall machines keep you from seeing where the exits are located. Newer casinos have been built with low ceilings to keep the player from seeing landmarks keeping them from learning the "lay of the land". Now, add a few drinks to this and the player becomes disoriented trying to find their way out and sit down to just play a few more games so they can "gather their thoughts".
Using What's Familiar
Casino operators know that many who visit come from out of town but there
does exist a large contingent of locals who patronize their business. To capitalize on this, the sales departments of casinos often make deals with other local businesses, offering free meals at a well-known location in town and some will even feature a free car to be won obtained from a local, well-trusted dealer (in return for advertising, of course).
This is good business for all concerned and the player feels that if a well-respected local business is associated with the casino, it must be a trustworthy place that cares about the community. And perhaps they do, but remember that they are a business that needs to make money to stay open.
Oxygen Filled Buildings?
I have had more than one client tell me that losing money was the fault of the casino. One gentleman was adamant when he stated, “I was really tired and ready to go home and then, like a wave of cold water hit me, I was suddenly wide awake. I know that these places pump oxygen into the building to keep you going. When this happened, I lost another $400.”
The theory behind this statement is that oxygen will create a feeling of euphoria for the players and keep those who are tiring, wide awake and spending wildly. This is a myth. With all the other sensory stimulation going on, oxygen is not needed to accomplish this.
I also know fire officials who say such a plan would get a casino shut down immediately. Can you imagine the fire hazard that would be associated with extra oxygen in a building where players are smoking and electric slot machines are shooting out lights and sound by the second? Would such a stunt be worth the liability should a fire break out?
So these are some of the major tricks casinos use to separate you from your money. But wouldn't this apply to gambling addicts of all ages? Why would a gambling addiction is especially devastating for a senior? There are a couple of reasons.
Although losing money is never good for anyone, younger people have time to
rebuild their retirement funds again while unfortunately, older adults will have no time to recover. Health issues also arise for seniors due to increased drinking and breathing in unhealthy levels of second-hand smoke. They also lose track of time easier and often skip medications while busy at the slot machines.
What’s even more important is to understand what may lie behind the onset of a gambling addiction. We know that behind every addiction is an emotional component, and in the case of seniors, it may be a recent loss of a spouse or their way of life. Such an emerging mental health issue is certainly made exponentially worse when a senior uses gambling as their coping mechanism.
We urge any family who has someone with a gambling problem to manage their bank accounts for them and if you cannot do this, seek a professional fiduciary, an elder law attorney or a daily money manager to oversee their finances. A professional fiduciary will not only keep all bills paid, taxes up to date and limit spending, but also monitor bank accounts for any sign of fraud. This is a necessity for any senior who has a gambling problem.
If someone already has a rep payee and you do not know who that person is, get the information. On more than one occasion, I have found fellow gamblers acting as rep payees for a senior who not only permitted the gambling to occur, but also dipped into the account themselves. We will discuss this more in the coming weeks.
Next week, we will look at the issue of online gambling and why this may be even more problematic for seniors. Additional help can be found by going to the National Council on Problem Gambling where you can find help in whatever state you are located.
Attorney Connelly practices in the area of elder law. This area of law involves Medicaid planning and asset protection advice for those individuals entering nursing homes, planning for the possibility of disability through the use of powers of attorney for the both health care and finances, guardianship, estate planning, probate and estate administration, preparation of wills, living trusts and special or supplemental needs trusts. He represents clients primarily in the states of Rhode Island, Connecticut and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. He was certified as an Elder Law Attorney (CELA) by the National Elder Law Foundation (NELF) in 2008. Attorney Connelly is licensed to practice before the Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Federal Bars.