ATLANTIC CITY, NJ -- There’s no such thing as free lunch -- except, perhaps, if you are a senior citizen at a casino.

Evelyn, 72, and Gertrude, 79, who requested their last names be withheld, are lively silver-haired widows from Ridgewater, NJ. They take a charter bus to Caesar’s Atlantic City Hotel and Casino from their local senior center about once a month. The bus company gives each rider $20 cash and a $5 meal voucher.

Freebies such as food vouchers, alcohol compensation, and casino dollars are common incentives used by casinos to entice gamblers into their establishments.

Even though both Evelyn and Gertrude have very active social lives, which include numerous charitable volunteer activities, the pair enjoys “the noise, the lights, the glitz” of Atlantic City, says Evelyn. “It’s a complete diversion from what you do at home.”

The friends also enjoy the two-hour bus ride, each leg of which they spend gabbing and gossiping. Once inside the brightly lit, smoky casino hall, the chatting stops.

“When we get in the casino,” says Gertrude, “we say, ‘see you later.’”

Both women are practical about their finances. How much money they bet “depends on what your bills are,” says Evelyn. “If things look good, I bring a couple hundred dollars.” Gertrude, who worries about medical bills and the cost of living in their affluent retirement community, is strict with herself at the casino. “I limit myself to $200. If I lose more than $200, I feel like I want to slit my throat,” she jokes.

Yet for many seniors, feeling depressed after a trip to the casino is no laughing matter. The National Gambling Impact Study Commission found that American seniors who recently gambled jumped from 20 percent in 1974 to 50 percent in 1998. To some, compulsive gambling is akin to alcohol or drug addiction. The impulse disorder, which many specialists call a “hidden problem” because it’s often difficult to detect, is generally defined as any gambling behavior that causes harm to the gambler or his or her family.

“Most health care providers don’t screen for problem gambling, wouldn’t know how to assess a problem gambler, and wouldn’t know where to refer,” says Keith Whyte, executive director of the National Council on Problem Gambling (NCPG), based in Washington, D.C.

Seniors are particularly vulnerable to compulsive gambling for several reasons. The first, says Whyte, is that they are the targets of aggressive marketing campaigns by the $68.7 billion-a-year gambling industry. For example, many Caesar’s regulars carry “Total Rewards” cards that earn points with continued use. The cards – which older gamblers frequently tie to their wrists in order not to lose them — promote brand loyalty and allow Harrah’s, Caesar’s parent company, to keep track of how much an individual spends. According to a report by Economics Research Associates, a private market research group, Harrah’s uses Total Rewards information to develop customer profiles for targeted marketing.

Older Americans are also susceptible to gambling problems because they have high rates of disorders that make them vulnerable. “Loneliness and depression are risk factors for developing gambling problem,” says Whyte, as well as “substance abuse [and] diminished capacity, like Alzheimer’s.”

A third reason, according to Whyte, is that seniors face several barriers to getting help. “There’s the shame and stigma of a gambling problem in general,” he says. “There’s especially shame and stigma for an elder to admit that they’ve fallen off a cliff. If they’ve cashed out or tapped in to their retirement accounts, it’s very hard, if not impossible to replace that money.”

But Whyte acknowledges that casino gambling can be a pleasurable activity, if done reasonably.

Indeed, Irene Prescod, 91, would be lost without her daily trips to Caesar’s and other local casinos. Prescod, who immigrated to Brooklyn, N.Y. from Trinidad in 1960, now lives in Jeffery Tower, an Atlantic City retirement community. She takes a shuttle bus from her residence to any casino she chooses. When she feels like going home, she never has to wait more than five minutes for the shuttle, which takes her to her door.

“Before we had casinos,” Prescod says, “seniors didn’t know where to go or what to do.”

Prescod is a retired nurse’s aid who only bets money once a month when her pension check arrives in the mail. She limits herself to $50 before calling it quits. The most she’s ever won was $1,000, but the real thrill, she says, comes from sitting by the slot machines watching others win money. When she needs to stretch her legs, Prescod takes a walk on the boardwalk and sits on a bench to continue her beloved people-watching.

“I don’t like to be shut up in the house,” she says.

In a real sense, casinos have become the equivalent of day care for the elderly. Getting there is cheap, the environment is safe, warm, and filled with hundreds of similarly-aged people to interact with, if one chooses.
It’s not easy, according to Christine Fernandez, PhD, Project Manager at Columbia University’s Gambling Disorders Clinic in New York, for those without addictive tendencies to understand how it feels gamble compulsively. “Someone feels the impulse, and then they have a tension,” she explains. “Then they play, and they have a release.” Then the cycle starts all over again.

If seniors have loved ones supplementing their incomes, the situation gets more complex. When she counsels the families of problem gamblers, Fernandez says, “kids don’t often know how often or how much their parents are spending.” When the patient’s disorder has caused significant financial damage to loved ones, Fernandez often has to direct families to debt consolidation specialists.

Recognizing problem gambling behavior is key to getting addicts the help they need. Many compulsive gamblers lie to conceal their addiction. On a recent Greyhound Bus trip to Atlantic City from Manhattan, a middle-aged woman on a cell phone could be overheard telling her mother that no, she was not at the casino, she was walking down 5th Avenue, about to deposit a check at the bank.

For those in the process of trying to quit gambling, most casinos have a “do not admit” program—gamblers can call a casino to put their names on a list of people who are not allowed onto the premises.

There is hope for problem gamblers wishing to return to healthy lifestyles. Fernandez recalls a 65-year-old woman who was feeling depressed and undervalued, so she turned to casinos. The woman “felt awful after gambling—worthless, and guilty,” Fernandez says. After going through a course of cognitive behavioral therapy, which included taking classes to improve her skills, expanding her social networks, and ending toxic relationships in her life, the woman felt stronger and better about herself. All this was essential, so that she didn’t feel, says Fernandez, “that she was vegetating and being left behind.”