Casino trips and bingo nights may offer retirees a chance for excitement and socializing, but gambling also can prompt elderly gamblers to wager more than they can afford, according to a study.
Problem gamblers who are on fixed incomes often end up in greater peril than younger people who have more years of working to straighten out their debts, said Dr. David Oslin, senior author of the study in the current edition of the American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry.
Of the 843 senior citizens interviewed by researchers at the University of Pennsylvania and the Penn State College of Medicine, nearly 70 percent said they gambled at least once in the past year.
Of that number, nearly 11 percent fit the researchers' criteria of "at-risk" gamblers — reporting that they plunked down more than $100 in a single bet, gambled more than they could afford to lose, or both.
"These seniors who are at risk may not be ready for Gamblers Anonymous, but many of them don't have a lot of money and spending on gambling could mean that they won't have anything left to buy medicines," Oslin said Tuesday.
The researchers gave questionnaires to a random group of patients, age 65 and older, at several primary care clinics. The most popular choices for those who specified a gambling preference were lotteries, playing on gambling machines and going to casinos.
The results suggest older women are just as likely as men to gamble and develop gambling problems. However, it also indicates that those defined as at-risk gamblers were more likely to be minorities, binge drinkers, or suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder — and they may be less likely to seek help.
"This is a good study because it provides us with an important signal that this is something we need to be on the lookout for," said Dr. Dan Blazer, a professor of psychiatry at Duke University, who was not involved in the research.
Oslin said the study has some limitations — only half of the people who were randomly chosen agreed to participate in the study, and the all the respondents were from the Philadelphia region, which is close to Atlantic City, N.J., and may offer easier access to gambling opportunities than other areas. But he believes the data is solid.
Terry Elman, of the Council of Compulsive Gambling of New Jersey, said he suspects the percentage of at-risk gamblers is actually much higher.
"There's a shame factor and a no-way-out factor with (elderly) problem gamblers," he said. "They don't really know what to do, and they're too ashamed to tell even their own kids that there's a problem."
Oslin stressed that the research doesn't mean seniors should give up gambling if they can do it responsibly.
"If it's an occasional event, like taking a casino trip every six months, that's one thing," Oslin said. "If it's a regular activity in which people are spending money that they really can't afford to, that's something else."