Problem Gambling and Seniors - Part 3 Spotting A Problem and Discussing It

Problem gambling in seniors Casino floor

For Harold, his trips to the Connecticut casinos were a welcome change to his life of loneliness that he had since the death of his beloved wife, Cheryl. For the first two years, he spent most of his time with his children and grandchildren but eventually, their lives had to go on -- as did his.

Harold decided to take the local senior center’s trip to the casino as a way to find a good time. What he found was something he had not expected and it wasn't good.

“I’ve always been good with money and watched our spending,” Harold stated. “But, after Cheryl died, there was absolutely nothing that could take her place and I was sinking really fast. Going to the casino really met at a lot of my needs, I had friends, a good time and even met a woman their who showed me that life can go on.”

Harold began to visit the casino once a month when he got his check, but that

Problem gambling in seniors Casino trip

that soon changed to once a week. “The lady I met was as deep into gambling as I was and when I look back on it, all we really had in common was a gambling problem. When she called me, it was to ask for money and when we did see each other, gambling was involved in some sort of way. It wasn’t relationship built on love, it was built on chasing the bells and whistles at the casino. It seems like I'm right back where I started from -- with less money and feeling like I was used by someone”

Harold's story is not unique for seniors with gambling problems. As we discussed in our previous blogs, the problems faced by seniors with a gambling addiction are the same as those faced by younger adults – a loss of financial security, relationship issues and legal difficulties. But there is one unique issue present for seniors – they do not have the ability to recover from their losses.

Treating a gambling problem in seniors is also a challenge due to the reduced cognitive capacity in many making it difficult to grasp the process of treatment. This is why those who surround seniors and care for them need to take concrete steps to limit their access to funds. But more on this later.

Although we focused on casinos in our first two blogs, Attorney Connelly points out that gambling is just not about casinos.

“We tend to overlook other ways that gambling occurs and, in some cases, view them as being benign, but in reality, a lifetime of savings can be lost in any of these games – specifically state sponsored gaming like the lottery or Keno,” said Connelly.

Just what is Keno?

Problem gambling in seniors Keno

According to the state lottery websites, “winning numbers are drawn approximately every four minutes. Players select from 1 to 12 numbers or ‘spots’ for each game. A computer then randomly chooses 20 winning numbers from 1 to 80 and displays them on a Keno monitor.” However, it doesn’t stop there. As the infomercial says, but wait, there’s more!

“KENO-To-Go is a great opportunity for you to play up to 30 consecutive KENO games. All the rules and regulations are the same as the original KENO. You can leave the premises and check your ticket on-line. KENO BONUS gives you a chance to increase your KENO winnings by 3, 4, 5 or 10 times,” touts the website. It all sounds nice. But just what are the odds?

“Seniors I have dealt with swear that Keno offers them a better chance to win,” says Connelly. “But, their odds of winning the jackpot in Powerball on a single ticket is nearly one and a half times better than winning the Keno jackpot. In either case, the odds are astronomical.”

Just what are those odds? According to state lottery commissions, the

Problem gambling in seniors Powerbal

chances of winning $2 on a $1 bet in which the player selects a single number, or spot, is 1 in 4. There is a 1 in 326 chance of winning a $100 prize by matching four numbers in a four-spot game and a 1 in 40,979 chance of winning $5,000 by matching seven numbers in a seven-spot game.

The chance of winning $1 million by selecting all 12 numbers correctly in a 12-spot game is 1 in 478,261,833 while the odds of winning the Powerball jackpot is 1 in 292,201,338 as pointed out earlier by Attorney Connelly. Frighteningly, the chances of getting hit by lightning in any given year are 1 in 700,000.

“Walk into most convenience stores or coffee shops in New England and you will see customers playing Keno,” said Connelly. “No bells, no whistles, no flashing lights – just a few people sitting around drinking coffee, pencil and card in hand awaiting the next drawing. It looks very benign but all we need to do is look just north of Rhode Island to see how bad it can get.”

What Connelly is speaking of is a man named Demetri Papageorgiou of Haverhill, Massachusetts who actually defied the odds and won a one-million-dollar prize on a scratch ticket in 2003. However, he didn’t get that much (something lottery operators bank on), as he sold the winning ticket annuity for a lump sum -- about half its face value before taxes -- and ended up losing not only all that money, but additional personal funds at the corner store.

Problem gambling in seniors Convenience store

Papageorgiou told the Laconia Daily Sun in New Hampshire just how fast his winnings disappeared. “I was scratching two to four tickets and dropping $100 to $300 in Keno [a day]. You might win and prolong the day a little bit, but you give it back. When you are addicted to gambling, there is never enough money. It doesn't matter what I would win, I rarely walked out with any money in my pocket, and I'd only walk out if I needed to get home.”

Papageorgiou represents the demographic that state sponsored Keno game officials target. In Maryland, Kate, a middle-aged woman who held a state job and lived in a middle class suburb just outside of Baltimore, also became a Keno statistic. She stated that playing the game started during her morning coffee stops before work and soon escalated to playing whenever she could get into the store.

"I couldn't go by that place without stopping. The second I saw it, I would be in there," she said. "The only thing pulling me away was when I knew I would be late for work, or someone would be looking for me."

Kate stated that she would spend $100 to $150 a day, sometimes writing

Problem gambling in seniors Convenience store

checks to cover losses that the market would hold until they were good. She said she would play "in the morning, in the afternoon, on breaks -- whenever I could find a few minutes to get away."

Attorney Connelly also says that research shows that Keno addiction occurs rapidly. "Those who research gambling in older adults and seniors state that Keno addicts seem to get out of control in as little as two to three weeks,” noting by contrast that those who end up with gambling addictions to dog or horse racing may take years to develop. "It is like having a slot machine right at your disposal at every corner. For a compulsive gambler, it is hard to walk away from that."

We discussed casino games, online gambling, lotteries and Keno, but another form of gambling exists that many tend to overlook – the stock market.

“With the advent of online stock buying and selling several years ago, compulsive gamblers have turned to this outlet, which seems to, in their minds, be a more legitimate form of getting the rush, but fortunes can be lost there as well and sometimes much faster,” said Connelly.

Problem gambling in seniors Online Trading

But wait, isn’t playing the stock market by definition a gamble? Investors risk money hoping for a big payout, so how do we distinguish between a broker and a compulsive gambler? Aren’t those who invest our 401K money gambling with house money?

“There’s a huge difference,” says Attorney Connelly. “Investors do not put money into the market when the mathematics indicate such a move is economically irrational. Problem gamblers will spend money for opportunities to multiply their money even when the odds are overwhelmingly against them. Bottom line, professional money people avoid risk while problem gamblers actively seek out risk -- this certainly is not a winning strategy in the stock market.”

So how do we tell if a senior is using the stock market as a casino and not as a way to increase their retirement funds?

“There are a number of telltale signs, but someone needs to be very familiar

with the banking activities of their loved one,” states Connelly. “The obvious one would be massive amounts of money being paid in fees to brokerage houses. One family told me they ignored this expense because they assumed it was the cost of doing business in retirement fund accounts.”

Connelly explained that playing the stock market gives problem gamblers a defense against family members who confront them. Because successful investing involves a degree of skill that may not be understood by those around them, it's easier to hide behind the verbiage and strategy of the market

while exploiting another’s ignorance of money management. “And because even the best investors lose money, family members may not see this as a problem until a substantial amount of financial damage is done.”

Problem gambling, unlike other abuses and addictions, usually does not become apparent until the rent goes unpaid or bank accounts are drained.

Problem gambling in seniors Scratch Tickets

“When a senior has a substance abuse disorder, you can tell when they are intoxicated or not being themselves. But with a gambling addiction, you can’t smell it on their breath or see it in their eyes. They don’t stagger and fall and, in some cases, they display a false bravado as if everything is better than ever. It’s only when someone discovers that the property is in foreclosure or the car has been repossessed that the house of cards comes tumbling down,” said Connelly.

Some of the activities to look for in seniors with a gambling disorder is:

  • A preoccupation with gambling – do they talk about gambling like they used to speak about their loved ones. Are they looking up Powerball numbers on their phone or carrying Keno cards in their pockets? IS all free time spent at a convenience store or at a casino?

  • Isolation from family, friends and activities – are they making excuses about attending birthday parties only to be found at a casino? Are those things in the past that gave them pleasure no longer fun for them? One senior who enjoyed going to tailgating events with his son when the New England Patriots were in town instead chose to watch the game at the casino.

  • Self-neglect – are they missing medical appointments to play Keno, or not getting the refills they need?

  • Gambling even when extra money is not available – do they gamble just for the thrill rather than as a recreational event?

  • Gambling alone – are they at the casino by themselves or sitting at the convenience store playing Keno in a rainstorm alone? In many cases, friends who see someone developing a gambling issue will avoid them and leave them to sink by themselves.

  • Chasing losses – like a drug addict who always seeks the high they got the first time they used the substance, problem gamblers also “chase losses”. This simply means trying to win back money they’ve already lost by gambling more – seeking the same feeling of winning.

  • Lying about lost money – do they hide the account statements? Are substantial amounts of money missing without a rational explanation? Do they lie about where they are spending their time even though you know they are at the casino or convenience store playing Keno or buying scratch tickets.

  • Borrowing money – do they borrow money from friends and family even though they should have money for retirement? Even more troubling, do they not pay back what they borrow?

  • Gambling as a drug – do they gamble when the are anxious or stressed? If a personal emotional issue arises in their lives, do they pack up and go to the casino?

  • The Bipolar High Roller – do they experience periods of mania or depression following trips to the casino or convenience store? Does gambling cause mood swings?

  • Missing valuables – when access to money runs out, problem gamblers will then turn to pawning valuables like jewelry, art work, appliances and tools. Gamblers even turn to Ebay as a way to sell items and get cash.

  • Utilities turned off – problems gamblers do not pay their bills as their money ends up in the hands of others. Late bill payments are a sign that a problem is occurring, and a loved one’s account should be checked. If there is not a gambling issue, it could be the onset of a medical problem like dementia. In any case, this is a symptom of a problem.

  • Health problems – previous health issues like heart disease, COPD or diabetes which were under control are now presenting problems once again. This could be because the senior is exposed to second hand smoke or excessive drinking at the casino. It could also be because there is no money left to refill medications.

  • “I just can’t stop” – does the senior admit there is a problem and attempts to stop have been made but were unsuccessful.

If you think a senior may have a gambling problem, there are some ways to begin to explore that issue with them. This can be done with these few simple questions that need to be non-confrontational and non-judgmental.

  • Ask them, “What do you do to have fun?” What you are doing is trying to break the ice with them. They certainly won’t, in most cases, drop to their knees and confess. What you are trying to do is build a rapport with them.

  • Follow up with, “Do you ever play the lottery or go to the casino?” Again, ask this is a conversational versus a judgmental way. Allow them to expand on this as much as possible. What you are looking for is to give the senior a feeling that they can speak openly and honestly with you.

  • If the senior openly speaks about it, follow up with one or both of the following questions, depending on how open the senior is to talking. “What don’t you like about it?” or “What do you like about it?” Here is what could be a clue to a problem.

  • When you ask what they like about it, if they give any indication that gambling has filled a void in their lives – like losing a job or a spouse – this could indicate a problem or one that is developing. Especially if they are losing large amounts of money but continue to seek out this activity as a replacement for what they lost in their lives.

  • When you ask what they don’t like about it and losing money is the first thing that arises, further discussion is warranted. Continuing to do something even when there is a negative outcome means that a problem exists – most likely going back to the first question.

  • In psychology, this is sometimes called a secondary gain, a positive advantage that arises from a behavior or psychological symptom. So, although they are losing money, what they are gaining is a way to fill the void in their lives.

  • Depending on how much information they provide, you may then move forward and ask them if they think their gambling has become a problem – but do not push the issue. If they say no, let it be. You will then leave the door open for future communication. If they say yes, ask them if they would like to speak with someone who has knowledge of the issues they have concerns about.

When it comes to treatment, it must be approached with a multi-disciplinary approach which should involve treating the gambling problem, addressing the underlying psychological issues like grief, loss, a sense of who they are and feelings of hopelessness.

Problem gambling in seniors Slot Machines

It’s also important to address feelings of abandonment that may be present. We know of one client, we’ll call her Tammy, who moved from her own home into a senior retirement community following the death of her husband. Once this move was made, her children and grandchildren no longer spent the amount of time with her that they did when she lived alone. Once she exhibited signs of a gambling problem and the children’s inheritance was starting to disappear, suddenly there was a new-found interest in her well-being.

Remember when we talked earlier about secondary gain? Well, Tammy found that once she got the families attention with her gambling losses, she continued to use this to insure weekly visits from her kids. A pretty expensive way to keep the family together.

The senior with a gambling problem should also receive a health check-up and review what damage may have been done to the treatment plan that was in place and finally, someone must take over control of the finances. It is recommended that it be an outside person to avoid the infighting that can occur within families in such situations.

Next week, Attorney Connelly will begin discussing financial strategies for the loved ones of problem gamblers and ways to deal with personal financial issues as a result of gambling before they become a major issue and how to recover financially if the damage has already been done.

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