It cannot be denied that many people enjoy gambling now and again. For some, however, it becomes an uncontrollable and destructive compulsion. Indeed, it is estimated that in Britain up to 450,000 people could have a gambling problem, a figure comprising all ages but including an increasing number of senior citizens.
Why the Elderly Gamble
People gamble for a variety of reasons, not just the thrill of winning. The adrenalin rush, stress relief and boredom are all common aspects cited by addicts. Problem gambling, however, is often triggered by severe stress such as major life changes, such as the loss of a loved one or trauma. Seniors are not immune to these and are, in fact, more vulnerable, as they encounter social isolation following retirement or loss of a spouse. They can become problem gamblers even if they have no previous history of addiction.
Seniors are also particularly susceptible if, as many do, they have developed dementia. Dementia affecting the frontal lobe of the brain can cause the sufferer to lose inhibitions, which can result in a gambling addiction.
The following factors also render seniors vulnerable to gambling:
- Time – senior citizens tend to have a good deal of free time on their hands, as they are not usually in full time employment and have few demands on their time. Gambling is a way in which they can fill their day and alleviate boredom.
- Distraction – the elderly suffer many physical aches and pains as well as some emotional distress. Gambling provides an absorbing diversion, taking the mind of the gambler off these problems and bringing relief.
- Loneliness – many seniors find themselves alone in later life. They may have lost their spouse and their children may have gone away, leaving them with on their own. Some forms of gambling, like bingo, serve as a means of socialising and providing company. Women seem to be particularly vulnerable to loneliness (probably because women tend to outlive men and most women are younger than their husbands) and, in the United States at least, form the fastest growing group of problem gamblers.
- Convenience – gambling is becoming increasingly easy. Telephone betting is now common and Internet gaming is growing at an alarming rate. And residents of care facilities and homes for the elderly are often encouraged to take part in outings for bingo or bingo in the facility itself as a social activity.
- No physical limitations – seniors often suffer from physical disabilities that preclude them from many activities. Gambling presents no such limitations, as it can be done sitting down, in the privacy of the home and even if the gambler is bed-ridden.
Risks facing seniors
If they become problem gamblers, seniors are vulnerable to a number of risks:
- Financial disaster – probably living on a fixed income, seniors who gamble recklessly can easily find themselves in serious financial difficulties with little or no prospect of being able to recover. They may even gamble away their savings and retirement funds leaving them nothing to live on and leaving their families (possibly unexpectedly) without an inheritance.
- Lack of understanding – online gaming and slot machines can be complex and seniors, who might be suffering from a degree of cognitive impairment or simply fail to understand the rules of the game, can easily gamble more than they intended.
Recognising problem gambling in seniors is difficult. They are reluctant to admit their addiction, as they feel ashamed that they have succumbed to the gambling bug, especially if they have lived unblemished lives. Their problem may only come to light from close monitoring of their behaviour or if financial problems become apparent.
Once the problem is identified, however, it can be overcome with the right professional help, one of the most effective treatments being cognitive behavioural therapy. Elderly gamblers will also be assessed to establish if dementia is a cause of the problem. Early treatment is vital, not only to deal with the gambling but also to establish the cause.