Senior gamblers risking finances, study finds

Posted: January 19, 2005

More than one out of 10 people over the age of 65 are at risk of financial problems because of gambling, according to a University of Pennsylvania survey being released today.

Nearly 70 percent of 843 older patients surveyed who received care at Penn's primary-care practices and the Philadelphia Veterans Affairs Medical Center said they had gambled within the last year. Almost 11 percent were labeled "at-risk" gamblers - people who recently had wagered $100 on a single bet or had gambled more than they could afford to lose.

"They clearly are gambling at a level that makes me worry about whether they're spending their money wisely," said David Oslin, a Penn geriatric psychiatrist who led the study, which also included researchers from Pennsylvania State University. The study was published in the American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry.

Gambling is a $40 billion industry in the United States. Some type of legal gambling is available in all but two states, Utah and Hawaii. Seniors here have ready access to Atlantic City as well as racetracks and off-track betting parlors, and by 2006 Pennsylvania is likely to have legalized slot machines.

While previous studies have found that the elderly are less likely to gamble than younger people, the ranks of older gamblers are increasing more rapidly than those of any other age group. National surveys found that 23 percent of the elderly had gambled within the last year in 1975, compared with 50 percent in 1998.

That is troubling, gambling experts say, because many elderly people live on fixed incomes and it is very hard, if not impossible, to recoup losses without having a job. Plus, many older women are drawn to slot machines, a type of gambling that, according to some research, is particularly addictive, said Rani Desai, a Yale University School of Medicine epidemiologist.

That lots of older people gamble is obvious to anyone who has ever walked into an Atlantic City casino, especially during the day, when the gray-haired set dominates.

Bus excursions to the city's 12 casinos are a staple of senior centers, clubs and church groups. From 8 million to 10 million people are bused into Atlantic City every year, said Edward Looney, executive director of the Council on Compulsive Gambling of New Jersey. More than 60 percent of them are senior citizens.

"Our club comes down once a month," said Mary Szymanski, 86, of Maywood, N.J., who arrived yesterday morning at Trump Plaza Hotel & Casino with a busload of retirees from Lucent Technologies. "At my age, you have to have some kind of fun."

While experts agree that most older gamblers are having fun, they also know of seniors who turned to betting out of loneliness or boredom, and ended up broke. Seventeen percent of calls to the Council on Compulsive Gambling's hotline - the number is 1-800-GAMBLER (1-800-426-2537) - are from people 55 and older, Looney said.

Mary Ellen Bolden, a financial-management counselor at the Philadelphia Senior Center, said she has a 70-year-old client who was close to being evicted because of gambling when she began helping him pay bills. He now sets aside precisely enough money for his subsidized rent and gambles the rest away. "Usually, after the third or the fourth of the month, he's broke," she said. He gets food from neighbors and family members.

The at-risk gamblers in the Penn survey also were more likely to be binge drinkers or suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder.

Oslin said doctors need to know whether their patients are gamblers, as they may have other problems or be spending money on slots instead of their medicines.

He also found it disturbing that people with significant cognitive impairment were as likely to gamble as peers without memory or thinking problems. "If you've got a little cognitive impairment, that's probably not a wise way to spend your money," Oslin said.

The at-risk gamblers in the study did not have serious enough problems to be considered pathological gamblers, the American Psychiatric Association's term for those with serious gambling problems. Previous studies show that from 1 percent to 2 percent of adults are pathological gamblers, with the elderly less likely than younger people to fall into that category.

Inside the Trump Plaza yesterday, several people laughed at the idea of waging $100 or more on a single bet. The more typical senior-citizen bettor - at least at the Atlantic City slot machines - is someone like Audray Oliva, 67, of Mahanoy City, Pa., who comes about once a month for the day as a boredom-buster.

She lays out $21 for the bus ride, but gets a $20 gambling voucher and a $5 food coupon. Then she joins the low-roller crowd.

"I play the pennies," said Oliva, a retired cashier. "I'm cheap. It's a day away from home. I limit my play."

Clive Wilson, 72, who came from Brooklyn, N.Y., with his wife, Josephine, said the casinos were simply a way to pass the time.

"We've got nothing else to do, so you come here," said Wilson, a retired plumber. "I know some people who gamble away their money here. A lot of people - they're crying, they lost their money and they can't go home."

Contact staff writer Stacey Burling at 215-854-4944 or sburling@phillynews.com.

Inquirer staff writer Suzette Parmley contributed to this article.

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