Now that their children are grown and the mortgage nearly paid off, thousands of couples, age 60 and over, have some wiggle room in their budgets. They have income from a pension, social security and/or investments. And they have something that was in short supply a few years ago when raising a family — time. Such a combination makes travel and leisure attractive — especially when coupled with a chance to win a bit of extra cash to buy a new car, take a cruise or help with the cost of braces and private school for the grandkids.
However, the temptation is great to rely on windfalls in a casino rather than setting aside a few hundred dollars in savings or an investment. Tom and Ginger know what that’s like. When they were newly married in the early 1960s, they made regular trips to Las Vegas from their home in the San Fernando Valley in Southern California.
"If we needed a new mattress or a piece of furniture for the living room, we’d drive to Vegas and gamble the $50 we’d set aside to play with. Five times out of six we’d win a hundred or two," said Tom, "enough to pay for gas, a cheap motel and a few shared meals. We’d bring the rest home and buy what we needed. It was fun — and it worked."Composite based on personal experience and interview.
For a while. But that innocent game led to bigger stakes as they earned more while their family grew. Tom gambled, not only at the dice tables but also with investments. He bought part of a ranch with two buddies and lost his share, and he purchased an airplane without telling Ginger, then signed up for flying lessons so he could fly to Vegas on his own.
They managed to pay their bills but their marriage took a hit and they separated for a time before getting back together. Now they are in their 70s and the lure of the casinos is still fresh in their minds, though they no longer gamble. Both have been long-time members of Gamblers Anonymous.
Cracking the Nest Egg
According to Liz Pulliam Weston of msn.com, some seniors are gambling away their nest eggs at casinos, in slot machines and around poker tables. Such practices can lead to losing one’s home even if the mortgage is already paid down.
One couple opened an equity line of credit and within a few months had run up over $50,000 of debt without the monthly income to repay it in a timely manner. Replacing lost funds by going back to work or living with family members until they get back on their feet is not an option for everyone and even those who have it suffer from humiliation and shame — which often drive them back to the tables and machines to try again.
According to Weston, Florida found that retirees make up over 40 percent of visitors who return to casinos four or more times a year. For many it is simply a day of fun and good food at the cheap buffets. But for others it is a day of temptation which leads to loss and depression. The same appears to be true for compulsive bettors when it comes to an afternoon at the racetrack, a weekend in Atlantic City or a poker parlor in Los Angeles.
"Disordered gambling," according to an article abstract in American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry, "is a clinically significant problem among older adults." Compared with those who never or rarely gamble, compulsive bettors reported a higher incidence of anxiety, poor health, depression, paranoia and related addictions.
They also experience a high level of co-dependence — placing the needs and wants of others above their own — even if it impacts their physical and emotional health. Seniors, eager to be useful and needed, often take on the financial burdens that rightfully belong to their adult children. They jeopardize their own economic and emotional well-being by taking out loans they can’t repay comfortably, handing over retirement funds, cracking their nest egg to take care of dance lessons, private school or braces for grandchildren.
As Weston reported on msn.com, "Identifying truly pathological gamblers isn’t easy. They can successfully hide their compulsion for years." If enough money is available it can take years to deplete it to the point where they are found out.
One woman on the Sally Jessy Raphael Show a number of years ago admitted to going through the family savings, investments and retirement by forging her husband’s signature while he was on the road as a truck driver. A retired businessman kept his gambling addiction a secret from his wife by using cash only. He siphoned off a small amount at a time from their retirement savings.
Vows to Change
Losses escalate, however, because no system beats the casino in the long run. The compulsive gambler continues to use whatever cash, credit card, credit line or savings that is avail­able to acquire the money he or she needs to keep going. When those supplies run dry, the gambler is close to bottoming out. He or she can no longer shut out the pain of reality by gambling. In fact, gambling now creates as much or more pain than life itself. At that point family members may give an ultimatum, as Kitty’s husband did.
"I attended my first Gamblers Anonymous meeting and hated it," said Kitty. "I wasn’t ready to change. But I had promised my husband I’d go for a month, so I did. And I kept coming back — because it started to work.
"In the opening readings of each GA meeting," said Kitty, "newcomers are invited to attend meetings for 90 days, and if they’re not making progress after that, they can have their misery back," she said chuckling.
Kitty did not want her misery back. She committed to this spiritual program based on the model of Alcoholics Anonymous, and has remained free of compulsive gambling for twelve years. "I’m just going forward now a day at a time and thanking God for a second chance. For the first time in my life, I know what it’s like to be a real winner."
Seniors who gamble with their nest egg answer "often" or "very often" to many of these statements:
- I gamble with money from a home equity line of credit or mortgage savings.
- I tell myself I am gambling for a good cause — to help adult children or put grandchildren through school.
- I feel obligated to win so I can grow my nest egg.
- I increase my bets because time is short.
- I don’t plan to sell my house so why not enjoy the equity now.
- I am unwilling to give up the game. I deserve a little fun after working so hard.
- I know that investments are for a rainy day. This is my rainy day.
- It’s my money to do with as I wish.
- I don’t owe anyone an explanation for what I do with my money.
- I can always go back to work if I get into too much debt.
- A little debt is good for the economy.
- I know I will make a killing soon; I can feel it.
Copyright 2008 by Karen O’Connor. Used by permission. All rights reserved.