Senior citizens at risk for gambling problems

CHARLESTON — Can you describe a problem gambler? The person might be older than you would expect.

The Problem Gamblers Help Network of West Virginia (PGHNWV) reports that in the past 12 years, the organization has received nearly 1,800 calls from West Virginians who are older than 55 asking for help with a gambling problem. Many admit they have spent their savings and retirement funds, taken out loans, or borrowed money from family members to sustain their gambling. Some have lost their homes and have had to move in with their adult children.

PGHNWV, which operates the 1-800-GAMBLER helpline, has developed a campaign directed toward senior citizens. The outreach campaign, which features an elderly woman playing a slot machine, highlights the dangers of gambling addiction. PGHNWV will disseminate information to senior centers statewide.

Helpline reports show 466 seniors admitted bouncing checks due to their gambling, and 273 have sold property to continue gambling. The majority of senior helpline callers say they prefer gambling on slot machines, with most opting for the smaller video poker parlors, rather than the larger casinos.

Patty Deutsch, PGHNWV program director, says that for seniors, gambling is often not about the money. “Many older callers said a major life event, like retirement or death of a loved one, triggered their habit. Gambling relieves the boredom or unhappiness,” Deutsch said. About a third of the helpline callers older than 55 indicate they are depressed.

Furthermore, gambling becomes the primary social outlet for seniors. “Although for some seniors this is just another form of entertainment, those who have risk factors for gambling addiction get themselves in trouble quickly,” said Deutsch. “They often have smaller incomes, and if they go into debt, they have less years to recoup their losses. That means once their money is gone, they can’t buy food or medication. So even though they may not start gambling to win money, once they have lost so much, they gamble to win back their losses. It’s certainly not how they pictured their golden years.”

Deutsch says help is available. “We recently had a weekend treatment event and a significant number of attendees were seniors. What these folks really want is activity and companionship. We have free, private help statewide. Our counselors help them deal with the reasons they are gambling, and help them find other meaningful activities.”

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