Older adults vulnerable to gambling addiction
Seattle Times staff reporter
How to get help
The state has started a comprehensive treatment, prevention and education program to address problem gambling.
Funding: The first year's funding — about $1.3 million — comes from the state lottery, gambling and horse-racing commissions and voluntary contributions from Indian tribes.
Eligibility: To be eligible for treatment, individuals must be assessed as needing the help and unable to afford it.
Treatments: Gamblers are offered an average of 20 treatment sessions with a specially trained counselor. Family members are offered about five sessions.
Help line: For more information, call the problem-gambling help line: 800-547-6133. The help line can also provide a list of approved treatment providers.
Source: Washington Problem Gambling Program
When former Boeing executive Linda Selymes of Maple Valley retired early six years ago, she started playing a lot of blackjack.
The once highly paid senior administrator, having raised her son, suddenly found herself, at age 56, with little purpose, lots of extra time and shaky self-esteem. Having a casino in the neighborhood didn't help.
Though she had started gambling a couple of years before retirement, Selymes became severely addicted in the next several years, often staying out all night while her husband worried at home. She blew up to $500,000 in retirement savings — exactly how much, she really isn't sure — fell behind on house payments and hated the person she'd become.
"It's humiliating to admit that I let that happen to me. But I did," said Selymes, who sought treatment and no longer gambles. "Am I still sick? Yes. I am. If I ever place another bet, I will be back where I was before."
As the state's legalized gambling industry has flourished — with estimated receipts tripling in the past 10 years to nearly $1.7 billion in fiscal 2005 — problem gambling has emerged as a serious public-health concern.
State gambling officials have identified three groups as being especially vulnerable to problems with gambling:
• Older adults may have no way to recoup their losses if they blow Social Security checks or loot their retirement funds to gamble.
• Young people tend to be impulsive and impressionable.
• Certain ethnic groups (primarily Asians in Western Washington) may come from cultures that accept gambling as entertainment.
For most people in those categories and in the general population, gambling is a harmless form of entertainment. But at worst, it ruins educations, careers and relationships, and drains life savings.
Acknowledging the devastation compulsive gambling can wreak, the state launched a problem-gambling program this year that provides treatment for gamblers and their families. Starting early next year, it will include a prevention and education campaign. The first year's funding — $1.3 million — has come from the state lottery, gambling and horse-racing commissions and voluntary contributions from Indian tribes.
Most of the money is being spent on treatment for pathological gamblers — those with an extreme form of the problem. To be eligible, individuals must be assessed as needing the help and unable to afford it. To get started, they should call the problem gambling help line — 800-547-6133 — which can provide a list of agencies approved to provide treatment.
The program is available to any serious problem gambler, and will have special messages tailored to those considered most at-risk.
"The two huge areas now are youth and senior gambling. I see who the new members are coming to meetings," said Richard L., a member of Gamblers Anonymous in Tacoma who asked that his last name not be divulged. "Each of those two age groups has some extra vulnerability."
Even before the Texas Hold 'Em poker phenomenon took hold on cable television and in casinos in recent years, a 1999 state study estimated that 8.4 percent of all adolescents up to age 18 in Washington were experiencing severe gambling problems, compared to 2.3 percent of adults. The study further found that 12 to 18 percent of all problem gamblers in the state were teenagers.
"Youth consistently have had the highest rate of problem gambling relative to adults," said Gary Hanson, executive director of the Washington State Council on Problem Gambling, a private nonprofit agency.
Asians also are considered disproportionately affected by problem gambling.
"When you go to the casino gambling rooms, we're overrepresented," said Connie Cheng, clinical manager of mental-health services for Asian Counseling and Referral Service in Seattle.
Some casinos target Asians with special food and entertainment and send free buses to the Chinatown International District. Concern is so great that Asian Counseling and Referral this year started a special counseling and group-support program for gamblers and their families.
"We're trying to educate people about responsible gambling and how to keep it fun — and also to alert people about the warning signs of when gambling becomes a problem," said Janet SooHoo, deputy director.
Marketing to seniors
As a group, seniors are gambling more than ever.
The increase likely is due at least in part to a proliferation of slot machines and lotteries, heavy marketing to the age group and cheap trips to casinos offered by senior centers, retirement facilities and even churches.
For most seniors, casino gambling is simply an opportunity for a good time — a chance to get in on the action, stave off loneliness and boredom and enjoy a lavish buffet on the cheap.
But evidence is starting to emerge in Washington and elsewhere that significant numbers are getting into gambling trouble. And when they do, it's much more difficult for them, as retirees and pensioners, to recover.
"People are very concerned about older adults," said Rachel Volberg, president of the National Council on Problem Gambling and the Massachusetts sociologist and researcher who conducted this state's most recent studies on problem gambling. "When people start calling help lines and turning up for treatment, it's an indication that something is changing."
A study released this year by the University of Pennsylvania showed that 11 percent of the approximately 800 seniors interviewed make large bets or bet far more than they can afford. That may lead to squandering Social Security checks or retirement savings normally used to pay for medication and food.
Study participants at highest risk for gambling problems had significant memory loss or suffered from such conditions as anxiety and alcohol abuse.
Gambling is an activity "that seniors really enjoy. But I think they need to be well informed," said Linda Graves, manager of the state's problem-gambling program.
They need to know the odds for winning, the percentage of payout and that each machine does not pay out equally, she said. Prevention messages could be incorporated on field trips, and people sponsoring the outings "need to be very vigilant," she said.
The West Seattle Senior Center sponsors three trips a month to different casinos, charging a small fee for the ride as a way to raise money for remodeling the center and to subsidize low-cost lunches and foot care for center members.
One recent early morning, a busload of West Seattle seniors headed down Interstate 5 to their favorite casino: the Lucky Eagle south of Olympia. The casino aggressively courts the senior market with free transportation to and from locations as far away as Portland and Vancouver, B.C., coupons in the mail, a discounted buffet and special senior day every Monday. About 60 percent of its customers are 50 or older.
"They've told us many times we're the nicest group, and they treat us accordingly," said Virginia Cyr, the volunteer organizer for all West Seattle Senior Center trips.
To make the two-hour bus trip pass faster, the seniors swapped tales of past wins and losses and their favorite slot machines.
"This is our entertainment. We don't go to movies. It's fun to put in $5 and pull down $90," said a jovial Alice Taylor, 78, sitting next to her husband, Earl, 82, a retired mailman.
"But when we're through, we're through," she pointed out, emphasizing that they never exceed their self-imposed limit.
Trip organizer Cyr said "anything in moderation is fine" and that she tries to assure participants on the trips "don't get stressed" over losing money.
"I care about these people and I watch over them," she said.
"I felt targeted"
Linda Selymes had loved ones watching over her, too. But for a long time that didn't stop her.
"I felt targeted because of the lights and glamour and the chance for easy money. I went all the time — anytime I could get away with it."
At the height of her addiction, she'd go to her credit union and draw out $500, then go to the casino. When that was gone, she'd tap her debit card for another $500, then take out $300 more on other credit cards.
"At one time, I had about $14,000 in my purse that I won in about three days, and within 10 days it was gone," she said.
For the first year or so, her husband wasn't aware that she was gambling so much and losing. She was managing the family finances at the time and would take early withdrawals from her retirement account, going to the casino while her husband was at work.
Her system of deception fell apart one day when she came home after gambling all night.
"I'm going to leave you," her husband threatened.
While he didn't follow through on that threat, he, their son and her doctor eventually insisted that she get help.
Selymes in 2002 began taking part in a state-funded pilot treatment program for problem gamblers, which entailed weekly counseling sessions with a state-licensed private counselor in Renton.
After six months, "I was aware I had an illness and not just a self-control issue," she said. Since she wasn't gambling regularly and losing thousands of dollars, she was able to pay for continued treatment out of her own pocket.
Even then, she hadn't stopped gambling altogether. She finally did so last year, celebrating the first anniversary of that milestone on Tuesday.
She plans to keep going to support-group meetings for gambling addicts, learning more about herself and relying on a higher power and the support of others.
When the urge to gamble hits, she calls someone else in recovery. And she tells herself: "At least for today I won't give in to this urge. I don't have to deal with my whole life all at once."
Marsha King: 206-464-2232 or email@example.com
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