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Associated Press/Photo by Wayne Parry

Seniors addicted to the slots

Gambling

A recent study by the Institute for American Values (IAV) outlines the tragedy: Casinos have become depressing senior citizen centers.

The report, titled “Seniors in Casino Land: Tough Luck for Older Americans,”suggests that problem gambling is growing among senior citizens playing slot machines and other casino games. Billboard ads for these gambling parlors may show a party-like atmosphere, but the study’s author, Amy Ziettlow, instead found seniors glued to the machines.

“The mesmerizing design of the ubiquitous electronic gambling machine absorbs the time and money of many seniors, while exploiting their loneliness, idleness, and boredom,” writes Ziettlow, an IAV affiliate scholar and an ordained pastor in the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America. “Sitting at a slot machine felt like being stranded in the ocean in a small inner-tube, trying to connect to other isolated swimmers against the persistent undertow.”

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Arnie Wexler, 75, knows the feeling. He started with a youthful sports betting habit that grew out of control when he lived in New Jersey. He was able to stop gambling 46 years ago and now he and his wife Sheila, who now live in Florida, work as consultants on gambling addiction. He also founded the New Jersey Council on Compulsive Gambling. But while Wexler has stayed clean and helped others since 1968, America has gone on a binge of legal gambling expansion, with through casinos, state lotteries, and off-track betting.

In his work, Wexler often shares stories about the destructiveness of gambling, suggesting it can be as addictive as alcohol, cigarettes, or drugs. He has come alongside the wealthy and famous as well as those who have hit bottom and lost everything.

The heart of his work has been listening to the stories of addicted gamblers who want to get out and helping them through 12-step programs. Sadly, the batting average of success in Wexler’s line of work is not that high, with some going back to the habit even after years of freedom.

Yet he persists because he wants to help others avoid the suffering he endured. “I’ve been there,” Wexler said. “I’ve lived that life. It almost destroyed my wife and family.”

And he finds satisfaction in helping others. “The greatest joy you can have is seeing a person free, after three months, and then six months, and then a year,” Wexler said. “The highest high I get today is my wife and kids and grandkids and then seeing new people come for help and see their growth and recovery down the road.”

But with the findings in Ziettlow’s her report, Wexler may see more older adults needing help.

The 46-page IAV report offers some startling research based on Ziettlow’s hours of observation in casinos. She notes that slot machines are especially addictive and can harm the aging brains of senior citizens.

She also points out that though seniors may be lonely, they don’t find much fellowship in the casinos. “The casino environment is carefully designed to get players to melt into the machine,” Ziettlow said. “Nothing about the setup encourages group socializing or one-to-one conversation.”

Ziettlow captures the purposelessness of the slot machines with this comment from a man playing in Sioux City, Iowa: “It’s just something to do.”

Russ Pulliam
Russ Pulliam

Russ is a columnist for The Indianapolis Star, the director of the Pulliam Fellowship, and a member of God's World Publications' board of directors.

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