Casino mania: Harmless entertainment or playing with fire

It’s Monday afternoon at Orillia’s largest entertainment complex. The foyer is jammed with perky-looking grandmothers who carry their cash in tummy packs, not purses. An 80-year-old gentleman in a wheelchair manoeuvres through the glass doors. Fit or infirm, they’re all headed for the huge room with the twinkling lights and strange, raucous noises.

In the "dirty" 30s a phenomenon of this magnitude might have been a revival meeting. In the 1990s, it’s a cathedral called the casino.

Ten thousand people a day flock to Casino Rama, near Orillia. On weekday afternoons, most of them are seniors. They come on buses from all over Ontario — from McKellar, from St. Jacobs, from Torrance and Peterborough. One hundred buses a day.

The question is, "Why?"

Nick Rupcich, a regional director for the Canadian Foundation on Compulsive Gambling, is well aware that casinos appeal to the over-50 crowd. "We know seniors have time on their hands," he says. "Many have accrued a healthy nestegg throughout their lives and, as a form of entertainment, gambling is something that attracts them." Plus, complimentary shuttle buses make getting to the cino less complicated than organizing a ride to the grocery store. For the most part it’s all a bit of harmless fun. "My mother loves going to the casino. She has a ball," Rupcich says.

David Foot, author of Boom, Bust and Echo, says gambling is one of the fastest-growing leisure activities in North America. "Both serious and recreational gamblers tend to be people in their 50s and 60s who have enough discretionary income to afford this pastime," Foot says. "They treat the money spent as an investment in fun. Gambling is a form of entertainment."

But for some, gambling has turned a blissful retirement into a nightmare. One 68-year-old widow was suicidal when Rupcich first met her. Honest and hard-working all her life, she started going to Casino Windsor out of boredom and loneliness. "She had money in the bank and lived close to the casino," Rupcich explains. Within 18 months, she’d depleted her bank account, cashed in her two RRSPs, postponed paying her income tax and had amassed a $25,000 charge on her credit cards. "She’d lost $50,000 to $60,000 by the time she came to us."

When her family finally discovered the problem, they simply couldn’t believe it. Their mother — a charming, grey-haired lady — had been living a double life, using deception and subterfuge to conceal her whereabouts and activities.

The root of the problem was loneliness. "She’d never gotten over the death of her husband," Rupcich says. "When she first started at the casino she became part of this nice social network." For a while, the casino was her support group but all too soon it became quicksand. Another client, who now has his addiction under control, lost all his savings ($70,000) and was $18,000 in debt when he sought help from the Foundation. It has arranged for him to pay off a little of that debt each month. "But, he will be paying off the credit card companies for the rest of his life," Rupcich says.

Sometimes it’s the love of that big "score" that triggers the irrational thinking and behaviour.

"People are under the impression that if they stay at one machine or one table long enough, they will "beat it"," says Margaret Boyce, who has been warning of the excesses of gambling from her home town of Gravenhurst, not far from Casino Rama. "People go to incredible lengths to stay at the machines, even if that means wearing adult diapers so they won’t have to make trips to the washrooms," Boyce says.

While she is philosophically opposed to gambling, she has yet to see her casino-going friends slipping into ruin and despair. "I can’t find any evidence that my mature circle of friends are leaving their rent money at the casino," she says.

Rupcich himself sees no "alarming" trends in the way seniors are embracing the casino lifestyle. One reason may be that the Canadian Foundation on Compulsive Gambling is working with the casinos to promote responsible gaming. A campaign called Know When To Walk Away makes casino patrons aware of compulsive gambling patterns.

Another reason is that having put considerable effort into earning their money, most older Canadians are reluctant to part with it. They set limits on their spending. "We take $40 to $50 and when that’s gone, we stop," says Pat Paterson, of Gravenhurst. She and her husband go to Casino Rama about once a month. "For us, it’s merely a couple of hours of entertainment."

Once they’ve won some money, however, seniors seem happy to throw it all away. "I’ve lost $400, but I’ve won $500. I don’t mind breaking even if I have fun," says Mary Ann Beck, vice president of the McKellar Seniors, northeast of Parry Sound.