Gambling Addiction and Seniors, Part 3 - Spotting the Problem and Confronting it

"Research is clear when it comes to pathological gambling and older adults," states certified elder law attorney, RJ Connelly III. "More and more seniors are engaging in gambling with the number of those considered to have an addiction to gambling increasing in this age group. Pathological gambling in this group is associated with medical, psychiatric, and social comorbidities. As we stated in previous blogs, older adults suffer more harm than younger people because of the lack of resources needed to recover from the negative effects of problematic gambling."

Attorney RJ Connelly III

"Early research also shows that during the pandemic, online gambling increased dramatically, which included sports betting and other state-sponsored lottery games, with various methods of payment accepted including credit and debit cards," said Attorney Connelly. "The National Council on Problem Gambling released a statement that said it expects states to increase its advertising of lotteries and other games of chance to make up for budget shortfalls because of the pandemic. This is something we need to continue to watch because it has the potential to be quite problematic for seniors on limited incomes."

Harold's Story

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 to find an enjoyable 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 fast. Going to the casino really met a lot of my needs, I had friends, a fun time, and even met a woman there who showed me that life can go on.”

"The lady I met was deep into gambling as I was and when I look back on it, all we really had in common was a gambling problem." --- Harold

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

Hard to recover from losses

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. Therefore, those who surround seniors and care for them need to take concrete steps to limit their access to funds. But more on this later.

The KENO Caper

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,” he said.

Not such great odds

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 twenty 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 wonderful opportunity for you to play up to thirty consecutive KENO games. All the rules and regulations are the same as the original KENO. You can leave the premises and check your ticket online. 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 we have worked with swear that Keno offers them a better chance to win,” says Attorney Connelly. “But their odds of winning the jackpot in Powerball on a single ticket is one and a half times better than winning the Keno jackpot. In either case, the odds are astronomical.”

"Seniors we have worked with swear that Keno offers them a better chance to win...but their odds of winning the Powerball on a single ticket is one and a half times better than winning the Keno jackpot." --- Attorney RJ Connelly III

Just what are those odds? According to state lottery commissions, the 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 twelve 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 Attorney 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 to our neighbor to the north, Massachusetts, to see how bad it can get.”

At every corner store

Demetri Papageorgiou lived in Haverhill, Massachusetts, and defied the odds, winning a one-million-dollar prize on a scratch ticket in 2003. However, he didn’t get that much (something lottery operators rely 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.

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.

Kate's KENO Story

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 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."

"Those who research gambling in older adults and seniors state that Keno addicts seem to get out of control in as little as two or three's like having a slot machine right at your disposal at every street corner." --- Attorney RJ Connelly III

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."

Gambling on Wall Street

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 Attorney Connelly.

Is Wall Street a gamble?

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 an enormous 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.”

"Investors do not put money into the market when the mathematics indicate such a move is economically irrational. Problem gamblers will spend money...when the odds are overwhelmingly against them." --- Attorney RJ Connelly III

So how do we tell if a senior is using the stock market as a casino and not 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 Attorney 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. “When a senior has a substance abuse disorder, you can tell when they are intoxicated or not being themselves. But with a pathological gambler, 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 their property is in foreclosure or their car has been repossessed that the metaphoric house of cards comes tumbling down,” said Attorney Connelly.

Signs of Gambling Addiction

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.


Are they missing medical appointments to play Keno or go to the casino, or not getting the refills of medication that they need? Has their personal hygiene suffered? Is the house dirty?

Gambling even when extra money is not available

Do they gamble just for the thrill rather than as a recreational event?

Self-neglect and hygiene issues

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 the 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 they 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?

Selling items at the pawn shop

Missing valuables

When access to money runs out, problem gamblers will then turn to pawning valuables like jewelry, artwork, appliances, and tools. Gamblers even turn to eBay 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 secondhand smoke or excessive drinking at the casino. It could also be because there is no money left to refill their 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 a Problem Exists

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.

Question them

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

Follow up with, “Do you ever play the lottery or go to the casino?” Again, ask this in 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.

Offer Support

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 talk. “What don’t you like about it?” or “What do you like about it?” Here is what could be a clue to a problem.

How to discuss the issue of gambling

Pursue Reasons

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 substantial amounts of money but continue to seek out this activity as a replacement for what they lost in their lives.

Can't Stop

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 – going back to the first question.

Secondary Gain

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

Keep Communication Open

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 issue there are concerns about.

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

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. 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.

Secondary Gain

Earlier, we used the term secondary gain, so let's discuss what this means. In the counseling field, a secondary gain can best be defined as a "reward or advantage" that occurs secondary to the stated illness or condition. Secondary gains include using the condition, such as an illness or injury, for personal advantage.

Seeking an advantage

For instance, if a person is injured at work, he may be given time off and receive a check through temporary disability insurance. During his time off, he did not need to pay for daycare, thereby adding more money to his monthly budget. This is his secondary gain. Because of this, he may exaggerate the pain of his injury or report that he is not feeling better because he is making more money remaining home and not paying for daycare.

A good current example of this is during the pandemic when increased unemployment insurance checks sometimes paid more than the actual job, so returning to employment made no sense when they made more money sitting home. So staying unemployed resulted in a secondary gain of making more money on unemployment.

Gambling for Attention

Gambling problems and their associated issues can result in secondary gains for some. A client named Tammy 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 newfound interest in her well-being.

Well, Tammy found that once she got the family's attention with her gambling losses, she continued to use this to ensure weekly visits from her loved ones. An expensive way to keep the family together but an example of how a secondary gain works.

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

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