Mind Matters -- September 2005
Written by Ron Sterling, M.D. and Published in Northwest Prime Time Magazine

Older Adult Gambling
by Ron Sterling, M.D. -- September 2005

    Dear Dr. Ron:

      My 72 year-old, widowed mother who lives more than a thousand miles away, has been able to hide a gambling habit from me for three years. Her risky gambling literally started soon after a casino was built just two miles from where she lives. I had to stop sending her money because there was no way to monitor how she was using it. She would often call asking for money for one thing or another, including lost hearing aids. How do you help someone older who has a gambling problem? -- Signed: Looking for Help for Mom.

    Dear Looking:

      Thank you for writing! For a large number of older adults, casino gambling has become one of the most popular forms of recreation and entertainment. On an annual basis, older adults are now the largest group of visitors to Las Vegas.

      Are older adults more vulnerable to compulsive or pathological gambling? The definitive answer to that question is pending further research. However, there are indications that older adults may be more vulnerable to the lure of legalized gambling than younger adults. Casinos aggressively market to older adults who are seen as a population which has access to money (retirement savings), time on their hands, and limited social interaction resources. A study released by the University of Pennsylvania suggested that one in ten older adults may face a significant risk of getting addicted to gambling. Some experts consider this to be a crisis. I think it could be characterized as an "accident that was waiting to happen."

      Seventy years ago it was illegal to gamble anywhere in the United States. Today, all but three states permit gaming, and it is getting bigger all the time. Much of the stigma that once surrounded gambling is gone, especially for women. For the first time in history, legalized gambling is not only close to home, but at home on computers. Opportunity plus impulse or desperation is a formula that makes for a volatile financial situation. The Illinois Lottery did a study to see who gambles. They found that people who made less than ten thousand dollars a year gambled six times more often than those who earned over fifty thousand dollars a year.

      Pathological gambling has been an official diagnosis found in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders since 1980. The criteria for the diagnosis is too long to quote in this short column. Please see further below for links to articles and resources.

      Pathological gambling in men typically begins in late adolescence. Women have tended to develop pathological gambling later in life and, often, it has coincided with a specific trauma or major loss. Frequently, there are four phases to the timeline of pathological gambling: (1) the "big win"; (2) the "losing phase" -- the gambler is hooked on the idea that the "big win" is possible again in spite of repeated losses; (3) "desperation" -- resorting to desperate measures to acquire money for gambling; and (4) "hopelessness."

      How do you help your mother? It may be difficult to help her long distance, however, you have started to do one of the correct things -- withholding money. Proper treatment depends a lot on what may have initiated the frequent gambling behavior and what other symptoms may be present. If bipolar illness is present, or moderate to severe depression, or alcohol or drug abuse, or certain personality disorders, those most be treated. Like many other addictions, successful behavioral treatment is sometimes difficult to attain. Twelve-step programs have been shown to be the most effective. Sometimes, to get a gambler to pay attention to their behavior, it requires a family "intervention."

      The Gamblers Anonymous hotline for the Seattle, Washington, area is (206) 361-8413. There are Gamblers Anonymous meetings taking place every day of the week in many communities in the Seattle area and throughout the United States. I hope this helps. -- Best wishes, Dr. Ron.

      Resource links (Click to open. Links will open in a separate window):

      • Links are under construction. Check back soon for updated links.

        Author Bio:

        Ron Sterling, M.D. is a 64 year-old General and Geriatric Psychiatrist with a private practice in Seattle. He invites you to e-mail him at with any questions about mental wellness or emotional, relationship, or aging concerns. He is the only person who reads e-mail sent to Dr. Ron. Please be assured that your questions and identities are completely confidential and protected. For more information about Dr. Ron and for resources related to senior mental health, please go to SeniorMentalHealth.org. The content offered through Mind Matters is for information only and is not intended for medical, psychiatric, or psychological diagnosis or treatment. Never disregard professional advice or delay seeking it because of something you have read in this column. Read our Disclaimer. If you wish to understand more about Dr. Sterling's potential biases in health care advocacy, please check his Conflicts of Interest Disclosure Statement

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