As gambling addiction rates rise, keep an eye on grandma this Super Bowl

Written by: Dr. Edith Langford

Author, Ethnographic Researcher & Clinician, Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC, LMHC), and Addiction Specialist (CASAC, ADC) with four decades of experience. After a lifetime of experiencing ongoing medical mistreatment, she is working on a memoir about medical racism in our healthcare system

First appeared on The Guardian.

Seniors with gambling addictions are often boomers who have attained the American dream and then lost.

I have been a psychotherapist for 40 years and I still remember the first time, back in 1984, that I led an in-patient addiction therapy group. Joe, a retired marketing executive in his 60s and a compulsive gambler, abruptly exited the room and disappeared into the dark snowy Long Island evening in his pajamas and slippers.

Devastated, I thought I had done something wrong. “No,” my clinical supervisor explained, “it’s just post time at the Belmont racetrack.”

Flash-forward four decades and such cases of elder compulsive gambling, once rare, now dominate my caseload. The US is facing a catastrophe, with seniors at its heart. Each week I see out-of-control gamblers, including 80-year-olds, in my specialized addiction therapy practice.

My grandparent gambler base has exploded since 2018, when the supreme court struck down a law that had banned sports betting across most of the country. Over the next three years, as gambling apps and websites launched in newly legal states, the National Council on Problem Gambling estimates the risk of gambling addiction in the general population grew by 30%.

Lonely seniors, grappling with the pandemic and intense isolation, were drawn in. Cellphones became the sole companions of many of them in 2020, as coronavirus drastically curbed their social contact. Just as legal gambling boomed, and operators spent heavily to market their platforms, seniors were lured in by advertisements on their screens.

Take Rose, a former city worker and single mother who began betting on numbers in her bodega and moved online. At 80, she has a fraud conviction and owes tens of thousands of dollars to bookies. After her grandson showed her how to bet on football games and feed the online slots, she spent four years bent over her phone, betting.

Legal sports betting is exploding, with $106bn in wagers placed during the first 11 months of last year, according to the American Gaming Association. We are totally unprepared for this boom in the general population, and all the accompanying collateral damage. Most have not even considered the devastating consequences for seniors.

Seniors cannot recover financially when they lose. Their social security checks don’t go far in today’s terms for basics, let alone bets or debts.

Much of the focus on the rise in problem gambling has been on the young. But problem gambling rates appear to be rising among most age groups. And the ageing of America, combined with the lifting of the online betting ban, endless gambling advertisements, Covid-19 isolation and a loneliness epidemic, is proving to be a particularly volatile mix.

We will soon be mirroring our cousins in Britain, where hundreds of thousands of seniors are thought to have started gambling online during the pandemic. About 13.5% of people in the UK over 65 were doing so at least once a month by 2021, the Royal College of Psychiatrists estimated – up from 8.7% in 2019. “Online gambling brings potential risks due to its 24/7 availability,” it noted.

The US is behind on data, but therapists are seeing elderly addicts on our couches weekly. We see the ruinous effects of gambling on all aspects of their lives first-hand. Seniors cannot recover financially when they lose. Their social security and pension checks don’t go far in today’s terms for basics, let alone bets or debts.

It’s not just sports betting that’s a problem. Boris, a retired Manhattan doorman with a neurological disorder, has not paid his rent in six months. He had been spending his $900 social security check on Lotto tickets. We are working to ensure he averts homelessness.

Imagine the predicament of a pathological senior gambler. These are the boomers who won and lost the American dream. Ashamed and addicted, some are dead broke. Unable to recover, some perish at home, alone.

Between 7% and 30% of individuals in clinical populations and in treatment services for problem gambling have attempted suicide, according to a 2022 academic review of quantitative evidence. Seniors are more susceptible to suicides. Even though they comprise just 16.8% of the population, the National Council on Aging estimates they make up 22% of suicides.

Society needs to treat the root causes of this crisis among its elders: senior abandonment and isolation. Our current lack of attention to senior gambling will be deadly.

Sunday’s Super Bowl, in Las Vegas, is due to break records for legal sports betting. An unprecedented 67.8 million Americans are set to wager $23.1bn, according to an industry survey. As the market continues to swell, hope for the effective assessment, treatment and recovery of America’s elder compulsive gamblers continues to shrink.

The names of people affected by problem gambling in this article have been changed.

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