High Stakes for Older Gamblers

Article excerpt

At age 67, Anna was in excellent health until the death of her husband of 40 years, when she became very depressed and withdrawn. Having never held a full-time job after her marriage, Anna, with no one to cook or clean for, found herself disoriented by the dramatic change in her life routine. In addition, she understood little about her financial assets.

After experiencing several falls, Anna moved to a supportive-care housing unit, paid for by life insurance and other savings her husband had set aside. But like a growing number of older adults facing disruptions in their lives, Anna soon found herself swept up in the rapidly rising rates of gambling and gambling problems among older adults.


Anna's mood improved after she moved, partially because she acquired a network of friends and a regular schedule of social activities, including bingo games. She and a small group of friends played bingo several times a week, traveling to various sites for games on different nights. Although she never spent very much money at any one time, Anna's financial assets were quite small and taxed by her housing costs. To finance her gambling, she began to respond to mail solicitations for credit cards and take cash advances she was unable to pay back. She also regularly asked her children for cash, saying she needed money for medications or unexpected living expenses but actually gambling away the money.

Becoming suspicious of these increasingly frequent requests, her son investigated and found that his mother was gambling-and losing-about $100 at these bingo games. Because this money was a major portion of her disposable income, Anna had sunk into a substantial amount of debt due to the cash advances she had been taking. Her son became very concerned and confronted her, but Anna angrily objected to what she perceived as being treated like a child and accused her son of wanting only to get her money. Despite her son's attempts to convince her to get treatment for a gambling problem, Anna refused and cut off contact with him.

Only after her lease at the supportivehousing community was terminated when she could no longer pay the rent did Anna relent and agree to attend meetings of Gamblers Anonymous. She subsequently got treatment for both her gambling problem and depression, allowed her son to manage her money, reduced and consequently eliminated her credit card debt with the help of a debt counselor, and rebuilt a network of social ties around nongambling activities.


Anna's case spotlights some financial repercussions of problem gambling that may manifest in numerous ways for different elders. Because so many retirees get by on fixed incomes from Social Security, annuities income, savings and similar sources without employment income, elders often have more difficulty recovering from financial losses and may be more likely than younger gamblers to exhaust savings, cash in investments and spend annuity income. The amount of money lost to gambling by a younger, working individual may have less overall impact than the same amount spent by a retired gambler.

Ironically, although the effects of financial losses may be more pronounced in older people, the effects of gambling on work and family relationships may appear less pronounced for elders. Difficulties related to work or family relationships-'symptoms included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (Washington, D.C.: American Psychiatric Association, 2000) diagnosis of pathological gambling-may be less relevant forolder adults who are retired and may be widowed. Also, retired gamblers, unlike younger ones, are less likely to commit work-related, white-collar crimes, such as embezzlement, to obtain gambling money. Furthermore, compared with younger gamblers, older individuals usually have fewer family members from whom to borrow money to continue gambling. Because elders may have less opportunity to engage in certain behaviors that constitute symptoms of pathological gambling, the effects of gambling on their families' lives may be underestimated. …