Casinos as the Bleak New Senior Citizen Center

Are we turning a blind eye to a government-sponsored movement that creates false community, drains money, and undermines dignity for those most vulnerable among us?

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As with many adventures, I didn't realize I was on one until I was deep in the belly of a southern Louisiana casino where 35 cent bets flowed faster than the free Diet Coke. My elbow rested on the walker of an elderly gentleman who was teaching me slots. He worried I was going to waste all my money. I appreciated his grandfatherly concern even as I struggled not to ask him, "Is this really a responsible thing to do?"

As a hospice professional and pastor, I realize the importance of communities encouraging active lifestyles among the elderly. By 2030, over 20% of our US population will be over 65. Caregivers, churches, and governments will be looking for recreational outlets that offer community and fun while honoring the independence and dignity of older Americans. Half of all adult visitors to casinos last year aged 50 and older, so I decided to observe the American Gaming Association's (AGA) "Responsible Gaming Education Week" -- which is held annually since 1998 in the first week of August -- by asking: do casinos do justice to our seniors? What does it mean for anyone, much less vulnerable aging people, to gamble "responsibly"?

In an oft-quoted AGA survey from 2002 , the Peter D. Hart Research Associates, Inc., and The Luntz Research Companies report that 62 percent of seniors see casinos as merely an inexpensive day out for someone on a fixed income. They argue that "90% of seniors don't want someone telling them how to spend their time or money" and that "senior citizens believe gambling is a question of personal freedom...[that] they should be able to go into a casino, have their own budget, and spend their disposable income the way they want." The AGA uses their annual "Responsible Gambling Education Week" to suggest that pathological gambling is rare. But reading between the lines of the "educational" factoids and pop quizzes they offer it is easy to see the real message: there is NO such thing as luck. The longer and faster you play any "game," the more money the house guarantees you will lose.

"We come a few times a week." She pauses. "It's something to do."

My adventure begins with a leisurely, summer weekday morning drive down River Road in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. The casino boat parking lot is nearly full at 11:30 a.m. Valets are using casino-logoed scooters to assist disabled drivers from their cars and through the sliding glass doors. They shout "Good luck to you!" as nurse's aides, clad in scrubs, unload other seniors from nursing home and assisted living facility vans, pushing their wheelchairs into the brightly lit facility.

Inside, an elderly man sleeps with his walker at his side. I am looking for the buffet ($2.99 senior day) but am soon lost, and I end up wandering down the descending ramp that leads to the gambling boat. When I pass through a turnstile three blazer-clad security men offer a jovial, "Good luck to you! Good luck to you!" A silver-haired man, tripping on the high pile of the carpet, redirects me to the buffet.

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There I meet Mrs. Carol and Mr. Herb, a married couple in their 70's, who like me are freezing in the over air conditioned space. Mr. Herb sports an ornate carved cane with a stone handle. They come to the casino at least two times a week, but they weren't actually going to play that day; they just came out for the cheap buffet. Video poker is their game. When they learn that I have never played the game they warn me off it, suggesting I get an instructional book at the library first so that I don't lose all my money. They also instruct me to, "Get a card!" Ms. Carol takes out her card to show me but warns that my card will be red, not gold like hers. She has already worked her way up to "celebrity" status at the casino. Soon their friend, Mr. Norm, passes by and shares that his wife won $4000 the day before. When he leaves, Ms. Carol confesses to Mr. Herb, "I think we should go play a little...I can't believe Janice won that....We're already here, we might as well play."

They leave, and I head for three floors of gaming where I am enveloped in a fog of red, blue and gold lights. Slot machines are clanging and shaking, some old fashioned looking and some technical, digital, computerized. No one is talking. Old and disabled people are scattered, each alone, staring at machines. I see one long line of slot machines played by a wheel-chaired elder, a standing nurse, another wheel-chaired elder, another standing nurse, on and on, each mindlessly hitting a flashing button.

I can't bear to watch them for too long, so I make my way to the penny slots on the far wall. Sitting next to a gentleman, his walker at his side, I break into his trance. "I've never played this machine before," I say. "Is it hard?"

I mentally note that she is now the third senior to worry about me wasting my money.

"Huh?" He pauses, blinks and turns to help me, "Nah. It tells you what to do... You want to get 7's. If you get blue, red, or green you can get extra spins."

Presented by

Amy Ziettlow is an affiliate scholar with the Institute for American Values where she currently studies Gen X caregiving and grieving. She is ordained in the mainline Evangelical Lutheran Church of America and most recently served as Chief Operating Officer of Hospice of Baton Rouge.

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