When gambling turns to addiction

Jean, a 41-year-old Brandon, Man., school-bus driver, was shocked when her mother, who was visiting from Vancouver, asked to borrow $8,000.

“Mom, we don’t have that sort of money,” was her first response.
“Why do you need it? Is Dad in trouble?”

Her mother’s eyes widened. “I don’t want your father to know anything about this,” she pleaded.

VLT losses
Gradually, the story came out. Her 64-year-old mother, Helen, had started playing video lottery terminals. She had lost several hundred dollars right off the bat.

“I thought the only way I could get the money back was to keep playing,” she said. “I was sure my luck would turn around.”

But soon Helen’s losses were in the thousands.

“Where did you get that kind of money?” asked Jean.

“I used our credit cards and now I’m maxed out.”

The grand total? $26,400.

Gambling environment tempting
To an earlier generation of older Canadians, those who grew up in the Depression, such a debt would have been unthinkable.

But today’s 50-plus live in a total gambling environment with billboardand commercials urging us to take a flutter.

“There’s real social pressure to gamble,” says Marion Lynn, project leader on a University of Toronto study, At Home with Gambling.

A lot of the activity that surrounds gambling – such as organized bus outings to casinos for dinner—represents innocent fun. But for a minority, some of them seniors, it can become an obsession that hurts them and those around them.

“It can wipe out your finances, and there’s no recovery time for a senior to save that money again,” says John Kelly, chief executive officer of the publicly financed Responsible Gambling Council of Ontario (RGCO).

Often in denial
But seniors are reluctant to talk about what some social scientists call “the secret addiction.” Often, says Dr. Dennis McNeilly, assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of Nebraska medical centre, “their adult children don’t even know about it.”

McNeilly explains that many are in denial and see their losses as a financial problem. They call a credit helpline rather than an addiction hotline.

Can gambling be a true addiction? It doesn’t have the same characteristics as cigarette or alcohol addiction, such as withdrawal symptoms, “so we talk about ‘problem gambling,’” says Dr. Jamie Wiebe, RGCO director of research.

Next page: Are you addicted?

Are you addicted?
How do you know if you have a problem? According to Wiebe, you have a problem if you:

  • Borrow money to gamble
  • Neglect other areas of your life, such as your grandchildren or social engagements
  • Chase losses, saying, “I have to win it back”.

A healthier attitude, she says, is to regard gambling as entertainment and stop playing once you’ve lost a predetermined sum.

Who’s at risk?
Wiebe believes it’s the next generation of seniors—those now in their 50s—who will really take a gambling hit.

  •  An Ontario study of problem gamblers found baby boomers in their 50s had the second highest incidence of problem gambling (after the 18 to 24 age group) with a rate of 4.3 per cent.

According to gambling studies done in Manitoba and Ontario, the percentage declines after age 60. Wiebe believes this decline reflects the conservative attitudes towards money of an older generation.

Differences with gender
Among older compulsive gamblers, says McNeilly,

  • Men are more likely to have been gambling all their lives.
(Lynn’s research for the University of Toronto study found gambling runs in families.)

  • Women who are problem gamblers tend to start gambling seriously after age 55.

The late start for women, suggests Wiebe, is because gambling—historically a male-dominated activity—has now become socially acceptable for women. (Although she adds, women feel more guilt than men about their gambling losses).

Because older women, like men, have more time on their hands, gambling is also often seen as a way of passing time. More than that, Lynn says the casino is one place middle-aged and older women feel comfortable going on their own.

“There’s music and lights and it’s very much a social outing,” she says.

Connections with drinking
Wiebe says that for older men especially, problem gambling is associated with heavy smoking and binge drinking (five or more drinks in one session).

And there is also an association between gambling and anxiety or depression.

“We are concerned that [for older men] gambling may be a way of coping with a loss of self-esteem post-retirement or dealing with the loss of a spouse,” she says.

Next page: High stakes bingo

High stakes bingo
For many women, gambling is seen as an innocent and inexpensive evening playing bingo at the church hall. But even bingo isn’t what it used to be.

“They’ve upped the ante, and a Pennsylvania study found a group of bingo players who were compulsive gamblers. I sat in a bingo parlour one afternoon,” says Lynn.

“It was mostly seniors and middle-aged people playing. In between games that cost $30 to $40 each, they were lining up to buy scratch-and-win tickets. A person can spend $200 a day at bingo—and we think it’s harmless!”

Jean knows that even if she had the money to lend, it wouldn’t solve her mother’s gambling problem. With the help of her brother and sisters, she’s trying to persuade Helen to seek help.

Help sources:
If you think you or someone you know may have a gambling problem, call the toll-free helpline in your province for confidential assistance:

  • British Columbia: 1-888-795-6111
  • Alberta: 1-800-665-9676
  • Saskatchewan: 1-800-306-6789
  • Manitoba: 1-800-463-1554
  • Ontario: 1-888-230-3505
  • Quebec: 1-800-461-0140
  • New Brunswick: 1-800-461-1234
  • Prince Edward Island: 1-888-299-8399
  • Nova Scotia: 1-888-347-8888
  • Newfoundland: 1-888-737-4668