Seniors feel casino pull

Some fear slot machines could increase the number of addicted older gamblers.

All morning, the long, plush-seated buses growl past the sign reading Lucky Street to deliver their high-spirited cargo to the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Hollywood.

The buses will deposit 440 people, all appearing to be at least 60, into a lobby before noon, the women in snazzy animal prints, the men dressed for the golf course clubhouse.

Is this recreation? Or is it risky business?

The debate about gambling and senior citizens surfaces again as voters in Broward and Miami-Dade counties will decide Tuesday if racetracks and jai-alai frontons in their cities should have Las Vegas-style slot machines.

Gaming proponents insist casinos and pari-mutuels offer older adults safe, accessible and affordable entertainment that gets them out of their homes at a price most can afford.

Those who work with compulsive gamblers, however, say gaming addiction among seniors is real, and that more slot machines venues will mean more older problem gamblers.

The National Gambling Impact Study Commission found the percentage of seniors who gambled jumped from 20 percent to 50 percent between 1974 and 1998, the largest leap among any age group.

"For seniors who can go out and spend an allocated amount, gambling is fine. But we know there are considerable numbers who can't do that," said Pat Fowler, executive director of the nonprofit Florida Council on Compulsive Gambling.

Retiree groups like one from Boynton Beach, among the many arriving at Seminole Hard Rock this winter morning, bolt as soon as they collect their lunch voucher and Players Club cards for a $5 credit, spilling into the maze of 2,100 electronic gaming machines.

"I love it, I love it, I love to gamble!" crows Florence Weintraub, 82, who takes her seat in front of a machine called Texas Tea. But in less than a half hour, it has sucked all but 80 cents out of her player's card. Hosted senior groups are required to stay five hours, so Weintraub wanders off to the restaurant.

According to a 2003 council report, anywhere from 13,000 to 83,000 Floridians age 55 and older were pathological or problem gamblers.

But Judy Patterson of the American Gaming Association suggests gambling's opponents like to play the senior card in elections such as South Florida's to scare voters with tales of hooked, destitute elders shoving their medication money into a slot machine. Researchers agree that less than one percent of those age 65 and older are pathological gamblers, and that seniors have lower addiction rates than those younger.

"The studies we have confidence in show that elderly gamblers are not in casinos because they are looking for a source of income or because they have a problem. It's a source of entertainment for them and it has social benefits," said Patterson, executive director and senior vice present of the association, which represents primarily large gaming corporations.

Fowler and others especially are concerned about Tuesday's referendum, as Broward and Miami-Dade are home to 20 percent of Floridians age 60 and older. If passed, these residents could get a crack at up to seven new casinos, according to estimates from the state legislature, that each could feature up to 2,500 slot machines.

The Class III slot machines considered for Tuesday's vote, which are illegal in Florida, and the Class II electronic games like those at the Hard Rock are the game of choice for seniors, especially senior women.

Slots and electronic games are designed so anyone can use them easily, and that feature has made them particularly popular with seniors, said Ed Rogich of Inter Game Technology, a Las Vegas game-manufacturing firm. Bad eyesight, poor hearing or arthritis might keep an older player away from the poker table but it isn't a problem with today's gaming machines.

"I like the slot machines. I'm not so good at cards," said Doris Bobrick, a retiree who came to the Hard Rock with her neighbors from Boynton Beach's Banyan Springs condo in November. A woman tethered to a portable oxygen tank was playing a few rows behind Bobrick while another woman, her walker parked next to her, concentrated on the nickel machines while her nursing aide read a magazine.

Slots machines were Betty R's game, too. At 63, she's in a compulsive gambling, 12-step recovery program for women. All the participants use their first names and last initials, to protect their anonymity. Most are seniors, Betty said.

Betty didn't start gambling until her mid-50s, when she took a human resources job at a Mississippi casino. By the time she hit bottom at age 60, Betty said she had ruined her credit, plundered her retirement accounts and was $50,000 in debt.

"Looking back, I realize it was an escape, that I was running from life issues I didn't want to deal with," she said.

She doesn't blame the casinos, however, and thinks trying to frighten seniors is wrong.

"I think there should be more emphasis on providing understandable information," said Betty, who today runs senior wellness and prevention programs for Broward County Elderly and Veterans Services Division.

Florida's compulsive gambling council is asking state legislators, if the casino measure is approved, to require 1 percent of the revenues to go to education, counseling and treatment programs, an estimated $6 million annually.

Those on both sides of the issue agree the gaming industry does what more business in South Florida should do: Give older residents easy access to a day out that's affordable, as long as the gambler keeps his or spending under control.

"Seniors can't get transportation to healthcare but they can get transportation to the casinos," Fowler said. "The casino fills a niche that the rest of society has not. The casino says to seniors, `We want you and we value you.'"<>

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