Showing Care for Our Seniors Through Problem Gambling Prevention

September 1, 2020
The Florida Council on Compulsive Gambling, Inc.

Within the past 20 years, gambling in the United States has become a preferred pastime. Here in Florida, gambling opportunities have increased, as has the senior population, which has been growing more rapidly than any other age group.  For most Florida seniors, as is true for most Americans, gambling is a form of entertainment that does not present any difficulty in their lives.  However, among older adults, the consequences of a gambling disorder are often more debilitating. Therefore, before gambling, it is important to know the risks involved and the warning signs of problem gambling. 

While gambling is a recreational activity that does not present harm to the majority who participate, for those experiencing difficulties, gambling is even riskier with increasing age.  A gambling disorder is often referred to as the “hidden addiction” because inflicted persons display no visual symptoms, as is typically associated with substance abuse.  Also, because problem gamblers have no saturation point and cannot be assessed through traditional means, such as a blood test, the disease progresses unnoticed, even to those closest to the gambler.

Many seniors gamble as a means of escaping everyday problems, feelings of loneliness, sadness, boredom, as well as a lack of alternative activities.  They are among one of the fastest-growing groups of gamblers because they are more likely to face challenges in response to coping with major life changes or losses. The onset of social isolation resulting from retirement and family members moving away, the increased awareness of physical limitations, and the grief that accompanies the death of a loved one are among a series of overwhelming losses and difficult life transitions that make seniors especially vulnerable. Similarly, cognitive impairments are another consideration, as many elders struggle with their ability to make sound decisions. In fact, while medical experts estimate that 15% of all Americans over age 70 are suffering from some degree of dementia, in many cases it is undiagnosed.

It is essential for health care professionals and others to know that a gambling disorder is linked to a range of serious health conditions, such as heart disease, migraines, depression, insomnia, intestinal problems, obesity, high blood pressure, and a series of other medical and stress-related conditions. It is also true that compulsive gamblers often report that the adrenaline high they experience while gambling enables them to temporarily detach and forget their emotional and physical problems, including chronic pain. These are important points, because depression and chronic pain are routinely reported by this population, yet many are reluctant to visit a therapist or a medical doctor for help with their gambling problem due to feelings of shame and social stigma.

This year’s 888-ADMIT-IT HelpLine data indicates noticeable shifts in the age of gamblers seeking problem gambling supports, with a general increase in those 65 years of age and older, and 34% stating they were fifty (50) years old or older. Among female problem gamblers represented in this year’s HelpLine contacts, half (50%) were older adults (ages 55 and older). This represents an increase over the previous year of more than 2% and demonstrates the importance of continuing outreach and prevention efforts for this segment of the population. Overall, female problem gamblers skewed older than males, reflecting how the varied stages of life impact upon gambling behavior differently between genders [1].

What makes seniors particularly vulnerable?

There are multiple factors that contribute to why seniors are particularly vulnerable when confronting gambling related difficulties. Some most often identified include the following:

  • Onset of retirement and unstructured time
  • Loss of family members and other supports
  • Memory challenges
  • Physical limitations
  • Lack of available or accessible alternative activities
  • Feelings of isolation
  • Inability to recover financial losses
  • Exposure through recreational gambling offerings by senior centers and other organizational or group outings
  • Accessibility through free transportation

The following social gambling guidelines can help keep gambling recreational, and assist in problem gambling prevention efforts amongst this vulnerable population:

LOW-RISK (SOCIAL) GAMBLING GUIDELINES
> Set a time/dollar limit and stick to it
> Treat winning as a bonus/resist chasing losses
> Don’t gamble with credit/cash advance money
> Take a “buddy” when gambling
> Don’t substitute gambling for other activities
> Take breaks when gambling
> Don’t gamble if you are upset or angry or to avoid pain or problems
> Know the 24-hour Problem Gambling HelpLine (888-ADMIT-IT)

Because of the non-physical symptoms of a gambling addiction, even the ones closest to the gambler often do not recognize that there is a problem until the gambler has crossed into a desperate or hopeless phase.

To determine whether you have a compulsive gambler in your life, here are a few signs to look for:

HIGH-RISK GAMBILNG WARNING SIGNS
> Loss of interest in normal activities
> Blocks of time unaccounted for
> Increase in gambling or gambling-related activities
> Missing possessions or assets
> Use of retirement funds or other savings to gamble
> Changes in attitude and personality, including withdrawal and depression
> Lying about gambling or responding with anger when asked about gambling behaviors
> Neglecting personal needs and responsibilities (food, utilities, medications)
> Declining health or physical appearance

The good news is that a gambling disorder is diagnosable and treatable! There is a diverse variety of population specific supports available for older adult gamblers, loved ones, senior serviced providers, caretakers, and others, impacted by the  effects of gambling addiction, through the FCCG’s 24/7, Confidential, and Multilingual 888-ADMIT-IT HelpLine.

[1] 24-Hour Problem Gambling HelpLine Annual Report., 2020 ed., The Florida Council on Compulsive Gambling, Inc., 2020, 24-Hour Problem Gambling HelpLine Annual Report.