Gambling Addiction and Seniors, Part 2 - Online Gambling

"As a society, we continue to struggle with many issues surrounding aging baby boomers," said certified elder law Attorney RJ Connelly III. "We turn a blind eye to the fact that sexually transmitted infections are at an all-time high with the boomers, legal and illegal drug abuse and addiction is an ever-present danger and problem gambling is increasing fastest among this demographic group than any other."

"Although there are many explanations for this, the main reason is that baby boomers grew up during times when sexual freedom, drug use, and gambling were an acceptable part of their lives," stated Attorney Connelly.

The Casinos Come to Town

For me, as a boomer growing up in the Philadelphia area, the opening of the Atlantic City casinos in the late 1970s offered a new and exciting form of entertainment for the seniors of the time. And make no mistake about it, the casino operators knew that grandma and grandpa were ready, willing, and able to patronize their establishments.

I recall the seniors of my youth entertaining themselves by going to the Philadelphia Zoo, the Museum of Art, and the boardwalk in Atlantic City but by 1979, the push was on to get seniors into the casinos. First, it was Caesar’s, then Bally’s, Harrah’s, and the Tropicana came.

Casinos arrive in Atlantic City, NJ

Advertising began to fill the bulletin boards at senior centers, VFWs, American Legion halls, and even church basements. Free bus trips with a “cup o’ quarters” to the city by the sea became the choice of entertainment for seniors. Now some forty years later, many of us who were exposed to the arrival of gambling as young adults see this as just another way to have an enjoyable time. And today, some of these boomers are suffering the same fate as the Atlantic City casinos have – bankruptcy. But we are talking about real people here whose lives are destroyed and not a corporation who can write it off on their balance sheet.

Compulsive gambling among our seniors presents more of a problem than just financial. There are serious health issues associated with gambling problems including obesity, heart disease, intestinal problems, migraine headaches, depression, and other stress-related disorders. Research also shows that compulsive gamblers tend to have a higher number of emergency room visits compared to their same-age counterparts.

Marketing to seniors

Why? Here are a few of the reasons:

  • Spending hours in casinos and not taking medications as directed or not at all

  • For those who smoke, they tend to increase their tobacco use when stressed out by their financial losses

  • Hours spent in the casinos, even among non-smokers, expose them to second-hand smoke

  • Casino operators want to keep seniors spending so providing free alcohol loosens up the gambler as rational decision making suffers

  • Using alcohol after the fact to cope with the mounting financial losses

  • Poor diet (not eating correctly while gambling or lacking funds to buy healthy food)

  • Lack of exercise

When it comes to mental health, continued gambling losses also result in depressive and anxiety disorders and a recent study also indicates that over a third of those with gambling problems had considered suicide in the past year.

So why does it seem that unlike other addictions, such as alcohol or opiates, gambling addictions tend to arise later in life? Well, there are some surprisingly good reasons for this.

Gambling Disorder

As we discussed in our first blog, it is no secret that casinos court seniors because they have accumulated wealth through the years and have a lot of time on their hands. By using enticements such as free bus trips, free buffet meals, casino staff who pay attention to them, and in some cases, even offering discount prescriptions, casino operators understand the psychology of a senior. They know that gambling offers seniors rewards that are both intrinsic and extrinsic.

Extrinsic Rewards

An extrinsic reward is a tangible and visible reward given to an individual or an employee for achieving something. They usually have monetary value such as a rise, a bonus, or even an award that can be displayed on the wall.

When it comes to gambling, the extrinsic rewards tend to appeal to the greed, or more often, the basic daily survival of the senior. By winning money or being offered the hope of winning big, they hope to supplement their retirement income and afford some of the things which may have been out of their reach.

Intrinsic Rewards

An intrinsic reward is an internal reward that employees achieve from completing their tasks or projects successfully. These rewards are psychological and emotional. They also tend to appeal to feelings of self-worth.

Because intrinsic rewards are emotionally based, they are also more problematic. Gambling offers a senior who has retired the social interactions they no longer have at work, a way to combat the loneliness and boredom they are experiencing and, in many cases, a way to escape the pain and grief associated with the losses in their lives that are mounting by the day. Casino operators will deny that they exploit this issue with seniors, but they certainly don’t turn their back on it either.

Multiple studies show that gambling problems tend to emerge in those suffering major life changes or experiencing numerous losses -- issues that are prevalent in an aging adult’s life. The overwhelming number of life transitions that occur with aging can be overwhelming for a great many seniors and as such, they search for ways to cope. Gambling and the environment in which it occurs can certainly fill that void.

Joan's Story

“I couldn’t wait to retire,” said Joan, an emergency room nurse from Rhode Island. “The daily rush of emergency room medicine began to wear on me. Victims of car accidents, gunshot wounds, sick children, and growing expectations from hospital administrators just seem to tire me as I got older. But when I finally left, I missed the controlled chaos of the hospital, the camaraderie, and the excitement of helping others. Going to the casino with some friends seemed to replace the rush of the ER.”

Adrenaline "rush" like the ER

“The major difference, though,” Joan continued, “was that I got paid well for the work I did at the hospital but to get the excitement I needed, it ended up breaking me as I was paying the casinos for the privilege. It was a losing proposition – big time. I went through a savings account, one of my retirement funds, and then started spending out of my monthly pension check. At that point, I knew I was in trouble.”

Joan ended up going back to work in a private medical office. “It was something I had to do -- on two fronts,” said Joan. “It kept me busy and my mind off the flashing lights and bells at the casino, but I also needed to start building up money again in my savings. I am one of the lucky ones, I had something to go back to.”

It’s not just those of retirement age who face these problems. Individuals who are forced into a disability because of a medical condition or injury are also prime candidates to develop a problem when exposed to casino gaming.

Paul's Story

“I was a construction worker for nearly 30 years, and it kept me busy and able to pay my bills,” Paul stated. “But when I fell off a three-story building and broke my back and shattered my ankles, things changed quickly. I had hoped to return to work but my crushed disks put me into a wheelchair. I had trouble at times getting a ride to the store and even to medical offices but, strangely enough, I was able to go to the casino thanks to a handicapped van they provided."

Paul said he met a whole new group of friends there, friends who viewed casino gaming as a way of life and not a day of entertainment. " Before long, it wasn’t just the casinos I gambled at, but my local convenience store where I met my new friends and spent money on Keno and lottery tickets. It was never-ending spending with no return.”

When the time arrives when a senior realizes that a problem exists, they hide it due to shame and social stigma, much like alcohol or drug addictions. Because of this, they tend to isolate and the resulting reduced contact with loved ones and friends make it difficult to see the signs that their gambling has gotten out of hand.

Sandy's Story

"I know this sounds horrible to say, but I think I would rather have had a drug problem than one with gambling," said Sandy, a retired food service professional. "When I told my friends about my gambling, they couldn't understand why I just couldn't stop. One said to me that drugs cause your body to become physically addicted, money doesn't do that, just stop doing it. She wasn't alone with that opinion. It's hard to explain to someone why I can't just stop. So, it's easier to hide it."

"We have seen seniors living in homes without heat, hot water, or electricity because of draining their bank accounts...they could no longer afford to get their prescriptions filled..." --- Attorney RJ Connelly III

Sandy also blamed her financial issues for her gambling problem. "I swear, if I could get my financial issues under control, you would never see me in a casino again." However, if you know a gambler, you have heard that many times. Even if Sandy did hit it big and was able to pay off all her bills, the problem would continue and even become worse as she would chase the next big win. Problem gambling is not a financial problem but a serious psychological issue.

“It’s only when a family member visits a senior with a gambling problem that the consequence of that activity is realized,” stated Attorney Connelly. “We have seen seniors living in homes without heat, hot water, or electricity because of draining their bank accounts. Even more troubling, they could no longer afford to get their prescriptions filled and failed to attend medical appointments because they did not have the co-pay or were too embarrassed to tell the doctor that they could not afford medication.”

Every way to drain seniors or the disabled

In our first blog, we discussed the tricks that casinos engage in to keep gamblers in the building and spending money. A friend of mine returned from a trip to Nevada and was shocked to the extent that some of the casinos went to keep seniors in the house and spending cash.

“In one location,” Larry told me, “The casino provided scooters, wheelchairs, and even oxygen for its senior and disabled patrons. Go into the bathroom and you will see boxes for those with diabetes to dispose of their needles. I spoke with some of the seniors who were incredibly happy with their relationship with the casinos, some even considering them to be their friends and caring about them. One senior told me that they get a birthday card every year with a free ticket to the buffet and a coupon for $10 in quarters. I guess if you're lonely and no one else pays attention to you, that could be interpreted as caring. Think about how sad that is.”

Gambling Research

Dr. Lia Nower, a leading researcher in gambling disorders from Rutgers University in New Jersey, has discussed several troubling trends she has seen when it comes to seniors and gambling. One of them is the proliferation of gambling activities in senior centers and retirement communities as part of the standard offering.

“For those in senior centers who have bus trips to the casino, poker clubs, and bingo nights, one reason for them to hide their problem is because this is their social outlet,” Nower explains. “They’re lonely and isolated, and this provides some element of togetherness.”

Nower describes a phenomenon that may also attract older adults to gambling. “Some elders say that when they’re gambling, they don’t notice their pain. This is something that’s been said to me by a lot of treatment providers who specialize in working with older adults, that they are not as preoccupied with their physical discomfort when their minds are disengaged that way.”

I will disagree with Nower in one respect -- we should not blame senior centers or programs that work with seniors for this problem. Gambling and games of chance are now acceptable social activities and have been for decades. They are a major part of our social fabric that is supported by our local, state, and national politicians. What is important for these facilities that offer this activity is that their social workers and direct care staff be educated and aware of the signs of problem gambling and know where to refer affected seniors for help.

Online Casino Gambling

So, we have spent a lot of time discussing the issues with traditional casinos. Now, let's look at gambling that comes into the home, thanks to the internet. We have previously mentioned the support for gambling from our legislators as casinos continue to open throughout the country, sports betting has been approved nationwide, new, and more extravagant lotteries are being offered by states and now, we have the issue of online casinos and baby boomers who are computer savvy.

The question is, are online casinos legal? Maybe and maybe not from a federal standpoint but states are now changing that. State legislators are now rapidly working to approve online wagering and several states, including Michigan, Missouri, and Pennsylvania, to name a few, have passed bills allowing this activity.

Never let it be said that a politician will miss a chance to tax something and this is driving the online casino business in the United States. But as the states make money, the dangers associated with online gambling may be more of a problem than the traditional brick-and-mortar casino. Here are ten of the reasons why:

  1. If a senior has a gambling problem and goes to a casino, someone will notice their absence at home, or a retirement community or a senior center and can offer some intervention. With online gambling, a senior can play at home and even on a smartphone without anyone realizing that gambling is occurring. Even worse, gambling can happen at the store, on the bus, and even in bed.

  2. Online gambling offers something that casinos do not – access to your credit account is just a click away. In a casino, you need to get up, go to an ATM machine, and withdraw money. During that trip, some thinking may occur regarding the money to be withdrawn and whether it is a viable choice. Online, it is impulsive, and the money is spent in less than a second.

  3. When treating someone with a gambling addiction, one of the treatment goals is limiting the gambler’s exposure to the environment that triggers the activity, this includes avoiding casinos, bars, convenience stores, etc. Online gambling destroys this strategy. Having a computer at home or a smartphone in your pocket gives access 24/7 to the gambler.

  4. Online gambling is illegal in many countries therefore regulations for online casinos are sketchy at best. Because of this, it is nearly impossible to track down the operators of these businesses if fraud does occur. As a result, recovering any lost money is next to impossible.

  5. Open an online casino site and you will see, in most cases, large letters offering the potential gambler a “free play”. You get a chance to play for free and guess what – you win! But once you start using your money, the “real” house odds kick in, and guess what – you lose…over and over and over.

  6. When you are at a casino, you hold money in your hands and are aware of putting that twenty-dollar bill in the machine. It is tangible and real. On the internet, however, you forget that electronic money is also real money. Players may be able to use credit cards to deposit money into an online account that runs out as losses mount.

  7. At a regulated casino, collusion between players is illegal and can result in criminal charges and even jail time. However, in unregulated internet casinos, online collusion in poker games between players occurs on a regular basis. In fact, internet casino players may be sitting in the same room defrauding other online players.

  8. Traditional casinos can ban those with gambling addictions, however, there is no way to keep a problem gambler from using online sites. Although these online sites state that they can stop problem gamblers, there is really no way they can enforce this in a legitimate manner.

  9. Unlike traditional casinos, wagering online allows the player to drink or drug as much as they want without scrutiny. Being under the influence is a major factor in the time spent gambling and the amount wagered. Losses will add up and only be realized after the player sobers up.

  10. Internet casino players provide personal information or credit card details to online gambling websites which may or may not be legitimate. Obviously, they are a major risk of credit card fraud and abuse.

Whether it be a traditional casino or an online counterpart, problem gambling for seniors can be devastating. As mentioned in our last blog, seniors present some unique risks. Granted that a gambling addiction at any age is a problem, however, seniors, with reduced cognitive abilities, are at risk of making some poor financial decisions. And because of limited savings or retirement accounts, they can lose everything they have with little or no ability to recover.

Attorney Connelly and his fiduciary staff have helped families manage a senior's gambling problem through their daily money management services. “Limiting a loved one’s access to money is a key component in helping to overcome the gambling addiction and regain some financial stability,” said Connelly. “But there must first be a clear idea of the income and assets a senior could use to finance the gambling and limit access to them.”

“Doing this has two main benefits,” Connelly continued, “it protects the senior’s financial security, and it also blocks the one thing that fuels the habit – money. This could be as simple as providing a small allowance on a monitored electronic funds card to a more extensive fix – transferring legal control of assets to a family member or to a professional fiduciary.”

"Seniors who may have divested themselves of a sizeable portion of assets within the last five years may run into an eligibility problem when it comes to Medicaid...the law has no way to distinguish between gambling losses and gifts to relatives." --- Attorney RJ Connelly III

“Estate planning can also help a family where someone has a gambling problem. In one case, a spouse was concerned about her husband’s gambling addiction. She also had two adult daughters and was afraid that anything she left would be gambled away by him. A trust was set up for her spouse with a trustee who would distribute funds to him for any legitimate needs.”

But according to Connelly, the wreckage of the past can have serious ramifications for the future when it comes to long-term care options for seniors.

“Seniors who may have divested themselves of a sizeable portion of assets within the last five years may run into an eligibility problem when it comes to Medicaid,” said Attorney Connelly. “Unfortunately, the law has no way to distinguish between gambling losses and gifts to relatives. If a senior loses all they have and requires long-term care, they could be in a position of not qualifying for a Medicaid bed. Depending on the assets that remain, this could be financially devastating.”

“Dealing with a loved one who has a gambling problem is probably one of the most difficult addictions to address,” stated Attorney Connelly. “An alcoholic can always avoid alcohol, but a problem gambler cannot avoid contact with money. There are utilities to pay, food to buy, the fuel needed for cars, and prescriptions to fill. If we are looking to keep our seniors at home and aging in place, it makes sense to have someone manage their money. This way, all concerned can be sure they will continue to have a home to age in.”

In next week’s blog, we will look at the signs of problem gambling and what interventions can be put into place.

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