Canada

Gambling it all away

The spread of casinos in Canada is posing a threat to the country’s growing population of seniors

John Nicol February 7 2000
Canada

Gambling it all away

The spread of casinos in Canada is posing a threat to the country’s growing population of seniors

John Nicol February 7 2000

Gambling it all away

The spread of casinos in Canada is posing a threat to the country’s growing population of seniors

Canada

John Nicol

It is noon in the warehouse-like casino near Orillia, Ont., and the heavily bejeweled grandmother—wearing dark glasses, a fur hat over her red hair and a blank expression on her face—has drawn the attention of three women fresh off the bus from their seniors' home. Amid the numbing noise and flashing lights, the mysterious woman mechanically reaches into three brimming buckets of $5 coins, her hand protected by a black Casino Rama glove, and, under the watchful eyes of gaping patrons, continuously feeds two slot machines. The 75-year-old woman has just arrived in one of the casino’s white limousines, either from the penthouse of her gated condominium just north ofToronto, or from a nearby inn where the casino has a room set aside for her. A smiling Casino Rama escort is by her side, and soon a waiter hands her a Chivas Regal on the rocks and stays to stroke her back. For regular Rama patrons, and for employees who must be on their best behaviour, the queen has assumed her throne.

It is not unusual for Elsie Rice to draw a crowd, whether on the day she won $40,000 on the $ 100 machines, or even during a normal bout of prodigious betting. She has earned her status as the casino’s No. 1 gambler by wagering tens of thousands of dollars, sometimes as much as $40,000 a day, on the slots. She was worth at least $9 million before she received what one relative called “a huge divorce settlement” in 1997 from her husband of 54 years—Louis Rice, one of the early developers of the city of Brampton—but her fortune is being

whittled away by her almost daily appearances at the casino. Elsie did not respond to requests from Macleans for an interview.

Elsie is the dream casino customer. She has a history of addiction to drugs and alcohol, which family members say may have been triggered by the death of her eldest daughter in a car accident in the mid-1960s. She lives alone—a senior with lots of free time and a brimming bank account. Being a woman, she is, as experts point out, more likely to play the addictive slots, where gamblers have the worst odds in the house. These are conditions that counsellors at treatment centres across the country say pose a growing threat to Canadas burgeoning population—3.8 million and counting—of those over 65.

Lured by freebies—bus rides, gambling chips and buffet lunches—seniors are filling casinos. Provincial governments took in $4.7 billion from gambling in 1998-1999, according to the

Canada West Foundation, and although seniors are responsible for at least 38 per cent of casino visits, they contribute a higher percentage of the profit (about 65 per cent, if figures from a New Jersey study are to be believed). “Most seniors won’t seek help until they’ve had a catastrophe,” says Paul Welsh, executive director of Rideauwood Addiction and Family Services in Ottawa. Welsh says his organization has seen an eightfold increase in treating elderly gambling addicts over the past three years, including one millionaire who was left penniless and suicidal by his inability to avoid casinos. “Gambling used to be known as a tax on stupidity,” says Welsh. “From our experience, problem gambling is a tax on sadness and desperation.”

Grief over the loss of a loved one is a factor, but seniors are also coping with health changes and other psychological blows such as leaving work. In the resulting void, casinos offer excitement, a safe environment and a place where they can mingle with others during a day trip. “It’s the social event of their lives—the kids don’t call them, so off they go,” says Ron Barbaro, the chairman and CEO of the Ontario lottery and casino corporations. He says he is unaware of any growing problems with seniors. “Some just take the bus ride and don’t gamble at all,” says Barbaro. “Others get highs and lows, they get the excitement. I saw a lady screaming—she’d won 2,000 nickels, and it was like she’d won the Kentucky Derby.”

The provincial governments of Ontario and Quebec, which run two of the largest gambling organizations in the

world, say they don’t target seniors in their marketing. But Jean-Pierre Roy, spokesman for Loto-Québec, which oversees most gambling in the province, says Quebec does cater to retirees. “When you’re 70, you don’t think about climbing Mount Everest—you don’t have the same range of leisure activities as when you were 30. So a lot of people have a good time at the casino. They have lived through a world war and a depression. They know all kinds of things

that have happened in life, so we think they are mature enough to keep their cool while playing the machines.”

But experts in the field, such as Dennis McNeilly, assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, say such life experiences have not prepared today’s retirees for the modern casino. “Gambling has gone from a sin or a vice to governmentcondoned, mainstream entertainment,” says McNeilly. “People take risks they’ve

never taken before, but because they haven’t been exposed to widespread gambling, they don’t know how to handle it.”

The proliferation of casinos is part of the problem— the addiction rate is double for people who live within 80 km of a gaming establishment. Edward Strobl, a 72-year-old widower from Brantford, Ont., is a big fan of casinos, but he doesn’t believe the new charity casino in his city is a good thing. “There are too many people I know in Brantford who shouldn’t be going,” says Strobl, who goes once or twice a month to Rama. “They’re addicted and they don’t want to admit to it.” Strobl gets regular offers of a free motel, free dinners and breakfasts, but he advises against taking the bus because people waiting for a set departure time are actually encouraged to gamble more. “The crux of the matter,” he says, “is knowing when to stop and get out.”

With the proliferation has come public acceptance, ! which has led more women I into gambling. Twenty years I ago, they made up five to 10 I per cent of compulsive gam| biers. Now, they account for I fully half, says Jane Burke, the B.C. government’s consultant on women and compulsive gambling. Women are more likely to seek the emotional escape of slot machines, the random games of chance that are more addictive than the table games preferred by men. “Senior women are the perfect target for casinos and slot machines,” says Burke. “It’s just unfortunate that society accepts gambling so much.”

Burke’s familiarity with gambling is also personal. She has one relative in her late 60s who will buy her a used

People turn to casinos to help deal with bereavement, health problems and retirement

blouse for Christmas at a thrift store— then spend $200 on video lottery machines. And Burkes mother, who has held good jobs throughout her life but has already gone bankrupt once from gambling, remains poor despite still working at age 60. “She told me she would like nothing more than to win the lottery so she could play the machines for the rest of her life,” says Burke. “It’s not even about money. People are alcoholics and drug addicts because they’re hooked on the mood alteration it gives them. Gamblers get that same feeling without ever having to put anything into their body.”

The reluctance among gamblers to acknowledge their problems concerns John La Rocque, co-ordinator of Nova Scotia’s problem gambling services in Halifax. Information from the province’s comprehensive study on video lottery terminals, as well as anecdotal evidence, has convinced him that a substantial majority of problem gamblers—at least 1,500 seniors are addicted to VLTs alone—are reluctant to seek help. In fact, he says, no seniors have called the province’s gambling help line in the past six months. “Elderly problem gamblers, due to their additional layers of social and generational reluctance to divulge personal problems,” he says, “are in double jeopardy.” La Rocque, who has personally taken calls from problem gamblers, says he has been left in tears over the stories from people who “have lost everything—their homes, their life’s savings, their families, their dignity, their self-respect and their hope.”

Counsellors who deal with compulsive gambling suggest seniors should be screened, during regular visits from either doctors or social service agencies, for their potential to become gambling addicts. But some observers feel it is patronizing to suggest that seniors are somehow more gullible. Lillian Morgenthau, president of CARP—Canada’s Association for the Fifty-Plus—notes that while “seniors definitely enjoy gambling, they are also very discriminating. They can’t afford to lose that much.” And Norah Keating, a University of Alberta gerontologist, says it is “paternalistic” to suggest that a generation that has “spent a lifetime dealing with new situations” could not cope with an increased exposure to gambling. She adds that there is no reason that a generation that had to be frugal “would not continue to be frugal.”

However, Pat Fowler of the Florida Council on Compulsive Gambling, says judgment is not the issue—addiction is. Fowler, whose help line has had its share of Canadian snowbirds calling because of gambling problems, adds that living exemplary lives and overcoming adversity “makes it even harder for the elderly to recognize an addictive behaviour. Gambling is an escape. As a society we ignore seniors and don’t provide enough stimulating alternatives.”

At Casino Rama, where the average age of players is 51, casino president Art Frank believes he is offering seniors an entertaining day out. “They’re not sit-

ting home and doing their normal routine,” he says. Frank claims it is not very profitable for the casino to bring seniors in—Rama wins an average of $46 per bus passenger, an amount undercut by payments to tour bus companies, free lunch voucher tickets or complimentary gambling tokens, usually $15 worth. “What difference is it whether they come here and blow $46 or whether they pay for the bus trip and lunch and go watch the leaves change in Muskoka?” Frank asks. Two per cent may become problem gamblers, he acknowledges, but “how do you deny 98 per cent the opportunity to do what they enjoy?”

As for regular gamblers like Elsie Rice, Frank would only speak in general terms. Rama extends VIP privileges to its better customers—just like any other casino, he says. Pleas from family members to prevent a relative from gambling, Frank notes, may be nothing more than attempts to “protect their inheritance. Just because a son or daughter calls to try to get us to stop them from playing, we don’t have any right. If they’re adults, and they’re competent, they can do what they like.”

Rideauwood’s Welsh laments the fact that government acceptance of gambling across the country gives it a sheen of respectability. He compares the situation to people becoming dependent on sleeping pills, but then “are surprised to discover they could develop addictions because, they say, ‘This is medicine from my doctor.’ ” A major campaign is needed to combat problem gambling, Welsh says. But, he adds, “it’s pretty hard to get governments to warn people at risk when they are trying to promote gambling and casinos as acceptable entertainment.” For many seniors, gambling may well be that. But for others, the entertainment value is not worth the price they must pay. OH