Senior Women Fastest-Growing Group of Problem Gamblers

Twenty miles from the river on an east/west highway running through central Mississippi, there’s a billboard, one of those really big ones. This billboard is a party, a sparkling carnival, a live action vaudeville show. It’s so thrilling that passersby never fail to notice it, and some have been known to slow down just to stare. It’s not unusual that this billboard features a slim, attractive woman with her head thrown back, a look of wild abandon painted on her face as colored lights spin and blur and loom behind her. What is unusual is that this woman is probably 75 years old.

Just stop for a minute. Think about it. How often do you see elderly people in advertisements? Oh that’s right, there are the life insurance ads featuring former game show hosts and TV stars from the 1960s, and the every-now-and-then commercials for incontinence undergarments or some other humiliating factor of age we’d all like to pretend doesn’t exist and will never happen to us. By and large, we’re a culture that keeps aging behind closed doors, that covers it up, botoxes it away, tucks it safely to bed in the nursing home and rarely visits. Where other cultures—say Korea and Japan—revere their elders and consider it an honor just to be near them, we don’t think that much of the people who brought us into the world. The Greatest Generation, you say? Who’s that?

But for one thing: In the United States, seniors are eligible for Social Security benefits. Nine out of 10 people age 65 and older receive an SSI check every month. This government return on years of wages worked isn’t much, to be sure, but 90 percent of earners is close to the number of employed individuals in many places in the U.S. In other words, it’s a demographic ripe and waiting to be tapped by those who can find a way to exploit it. And who put up that reeling billboard on that Southern highway? A Mississippi river casino boat did.

Senior Women Most at Risk

According to AARP, senior women are the fasting growing group of problem gamblers. Mary Lou Fulton tells the story of her mom, 67, who emigrated from Mexico without knowing English, but who eventually acquired three advanced degrees. She began working at age 14, and for 30 years was an elementary school teacher. Fulton calls her mother an inspiration. And yet, lonely and bored after retirement, and “perhaps [having] a genetic tendency toward addiction,” her mom began gambling for entertainment, and, despite shame and promises to stop, has remained unable to do so.

In her article, Fulton quotes Keith Whyte, executive director of the National Council on Problem Gambling, who said, “The new face of problem gambling in America has become a senior woman who has lost a spouse or become alienated from her children, but has embraced slot machines and quite rapidly develops an addiction.” The National Council on Problem Gambling defines problem gambling this way: “Problem gambling is gambling behavior which causes disruptions in any major area of life: psychological, physical, social or vocational. The term ‘problem gambling; includes, but is not limited to, the condition known as ‘pathological,’ or ‘compulsive’ gambling, a progressive addiction characterized by increasing preoccupation with gambling, a need to bet more money more frequently, restlessness or irritability when attempting to stop, ‘chasing’ losses, and loss of control manifested by continuation of the gambling behavior in spite of mounting, serious, negative consequences.”

Getting Help for Loved Ones

Removing the addict from the casino, the poker game, lottery tickets or the horse races isn’t the only matter to be addressed. As with any addiction, attempts to quit compulsive gambling very often bring about negative withdrawal effects, making quitting difficult to do alone. There is online gambling, and many other ways individuals can convert their gambling practices in order to keep getting the “fix.”

Also as with other forms of addiction, compulsive gamblers may remain in a state of denial about their problem for a long time. Signs that someone may have a problem with gambling include: having troubling controlling the urge to gamble; gambling even when she doesn’t have the money; being secretive about her gambling habits; and continuing to gamble despite consequences, such as increasing debt or the concern and worry of loved ones.

Accusations, blame and shaming of a loved one about her gambling habit rarely help the problem, and may even fuel her need to gamble, as it can be a stress relief for those who do it (despite the fact  that it creates more stress). But there is help out there. Gamblers Anonymous is an international 12-step group where people can find the compassion and support of others with the same problem. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) has been shown to be effective for this problem and many quality in-patient and out-patient treatment centers exist to support the needs of gambling addicts.

If a loved one’s gambling is affecting your life, you may be interested in the support offered by Gam-Anon, a 12-step support program for loved ones of compulsive gamblers. Gam-Anon’s  “About” page on their website states: “We understand as perhaps few can. We are familiar with worry and sleepless nights and promises made only to be broken.” They explain that recovery from gambling addiction is often a slow process. Admitting the addiction is the first step, and that, of course, is always up to the gambler herself.