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Aggressive casino marketing targets the elderly

| Sunday, Aug. 5, 2007

For years, the games were his mistress, luring him away from family and friends, work and responsibilities.

He would sit -- bleary-eyed, tired and smelling of stale smoke and nervous perspiration -- for marathon sessions that stretched from hours into days because he was afraid of missing the jackpot that would change his life forever.

"Once, I sat for 76 hours, taking breaks only to go to the bathroom," said Phil K. "I was a manager and I left work to go to the casino. My wife worked with me and she'd make excuses to the boss as to where I was.

"I know now that I can't go into a casino again."

Phil K., 78, a member of Gamblers Anonymous who adheres to the organization's code and will not reveal his last name, is among a growing number of older gamblers at risk of wagering away their lives at legal games available in 48 states and the District of Columbia.

With five racetrack casinos open 24 hours a day, seven days a week in every corner of Pennsylvania -- and more venues slated to open soon in Pittsburgh and across the state -- the temptation for older Pennsylvanians has reached an all-time high.

"I'm not against gambling, per se. If they can set a limit for themselves, more power to them," he said. "But I've seen what it can do to you. I had a friend in his mid-60s who stuck a gun in his mouth and blew his brains out three weeks ago after he lost his home.

"He went through all the equity he had in it in three days."

Money, Money, Money

The United States, where some form of wagering is legal everywhere except Utah and Hawaii, is the world's gambling mecca, a Princeton University study reported this year. Leading the industry are casinos, which generated some $53.4 billion in 2005 and are expected to exceed $74 billion by 2010.

Pennsylvania entered the casino market more than 110 years after the reels turned on inventor Charles Fey's first slot machine in San Francisco in 1895. Until lawmakers approved 11 slots licenses last year, gamblers here relied on a state-run lottery, racetrack wagering and bingo games.

Since the Nov. 14 opening of the Mohegan Sun at Pocono Downs near Wilkes-Barre, the state's casinos have become magnets for senior citizens drawn by offers of bus transportation, lunch coupons, cash for play and giveaways ranging from DVD players to toaster ovens.

Indeed, industry watchers say senior citizens -- identified by the U.S. Administration on Aging as the fastest growing age group in America -- are flocking to casinos in record numbers.

"You'll find older gamblers all over, not just in Pennsylvania," said Richard McGarvey, a spokesman for the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board.

However, McGarvey said the state's casinos are not permitted by law to track demographics or profile players, so there is no way to determine exactly how many seniors visit them.

Although there has been no comprehensive national study on older gamblers, Dr. Lia Nower, director of the Center for Gambling Studies at Rutgers University School of Social Work, said her center's research and various university studies show their participation in gaming is increasing.

Nower said a 1975 study showed 35 percent of adults 65 and older had gambled in their lifetime. In contrast, a 1998 study indicated that 80 percent of older adults had gambled within the past year. A 2001 survey showed that 81 percent of adults 51 to 60 and 69 percent of those 61 and older had gambled within the past year.

"Other studies have supported those findings, but there is little research in the area," Nower said.

Keith Whyte, executive director of the National Council on Problem Gambling Inc., said he also has seen an increase in the number of senior citizens who are gambling, as well as a shift from bingo -- historically their game of choice --to casino slots.

He attributes the trend to higher numbers of early retirees and people with more disposable income from pensions and 401K savings plans, as well as aggressive casino marketing campaigns that target seniors. Easy access also accounts for them now making up the bulk of casinos' mid-week, middle-of-the-afternoon gamblers, he said.

"I had a guy tell me that he can't get transportation to the doctor's office or the grocery store, but he can get a free ride to the casino," Whyte said.

Risky business

Just as they are unable to count all senior gamblers, experts say there is no way to determine the number of problem gamblers nationwide. Various organizations offer widely differing estimates.

The National Council on Problem Gambling, which estimates that anywhere from 6 million to 9 million Americans meet criteria for a gambling problem, predicts that number will double by 2014. Meanwhile, Gamblers Anonymous Inc. estimates that at any given time, 5 percent of the population is grappling with gambling addiction.

Experts say many people are unwilling to admit they suffer from gambling addiction, which is difficult to detect.

"The casino employees are trained to look for key signs of problems, but it's a hidden addiction. There are no track marks on their arms, no bloodshot eyes, no alcohol on their breath," said Nanette Horner, director of Pennsylvania's Office of Compulsive and Problem Gambling.

Horner said the state's casinos must train employees to recognize problem gamblers and offer referrals to treatment providers. The state also operates a voluntary self-exclusion program that included 89 problem gamblers as of July 24.

Gambling problems can be more devastating to senior citizens than younger gamblers, addiction experts say.

Whyte said older gamblers often have no means to recover their losses because their age prevents them from working. Although some are disciplined enough to set limits and gamble for entertainment, others are at risk for developing problems because they might be dealing with other conditions, such as poor health, memory loss, dementia or social isolation issues, he explained.

"They can exhaust their resources quite rapidly," Whyte said.

Jim Pappas, executive director of the Council on Compulsive Gambling of Pa. Inc., said many seniors begin gambling after they retire or lose a spouse because they're lonely, depressed and bored.

"The husband dies, the kids are grown and there's an older woman with time on her hands and some disposable -- but limited -- income. She starts looking for ways to come out of her shell and she sees an ad for a casino trip with a coupon that promises lunch and free chips to gamble with," Pappas said.

"Pretty soon they're selling their silver tea trays."

Playing to win

Helen Koshute, 78, of Windber in Somerset County, admits that sometimes she's sorry after gambling. When she comes home empty-handed, she thinks about everything else she could have paid for with the money she lost.

But on a steamy Tuesday morning in July, she sat with no regrets in air-conditioned comfort at The Meadows Racetrack and Casino, where she pumped quarters two at a time into a jangling slot machine.

"I usually set a $125 limit. Sometimes I spend all my money and come home with nothing," she said.

Koshute is among a group of seniors -- dressed in comfortable warm-up suits and tennis shoes -- who board a bus once a month at the Center for Life senior center and head to a casino. In July, they paid $28 for transportation, a $10 coupon for free play or food and the opportunity to spend four hours each at The Meadows and Wheeling Downs, about a half-hour's drive across the West Virginia border.

When the bus unloaded shortly after 9:30 a.m., they were all smiles as they eagerly headed to the slots. Balancing canes, leaning on walkers, clutching pocketbooks and rolls of coins, they carried frequent player cards that track spending and accumulate points for discounts at the $10.95 lunch buffet or the snack bar that sells chili dogs and kielbasa and kraut sandwiches for $4 each.

They were primed for fun, excitement and the elusive big win.

They love it, according to Gov. Ed Rendell, who angered various groups when he described older gamblers as people "who lead very gray lives" in an October 2006 speech reported in newspapers across the state.

"They don't see their sons and daughters very much. They don't have much social interaction. There's not a whole lot of good things that happen in their month. But if you put them on the bus, they're excited. They're happy. They have fun. They see bright lights. They hear music. They pull that slot machine and with each pull they think they have a chance to win," he said.

"It's unbelievable what brightness and cheer it brings to older Pennsylvanians. Unbelievable."

Games people play

On a recent morning at The Meadows, it appeared as though the 25-cent slots were most popular, with nickel and penny machines running a close second among the players sitting in a haze of blue smoke in the dark, cool rooms. The cheap seats were filled, with empty chairs in front of more expensive machines that can swallow several dollars at once.

"What else can you buy with a penny• Those are the most profitable machines in the casino," Whyte said.

Mattie Crawford, of Wilkinsburg, found that pennies and nickels add up quickly. On a July weekday, she sat at The Meadows staring at an machine as women on either side of her fed coins into slots that tumbled reels of red, white and blue sevens, black bars and orange cats.

She'd started the morning with $60 to spend. Her luck ran out before lunchtime.

"I have no more to play with," she said, sadly shaking her head. "I'm just waiting for my ride to take me home."

Nearby, George Baran, 83, of Duquesne, said he and his wife, Joan, 70, gambled that day "just to kill time." The World War II veteran said he limits himself to $50 on the penny slots during their infrequent trips to the casino.

He won't pump his pension into the machines.

"We're financially secure, with no bills. I have a railroad retirement. I'm not in debt and I don't want to be," Baran said.

"I just keep pushing buttons until the game is over."

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