ST. LOUIS — Marian Johnson has gambled most of her adult life. Every year, the kindergarten teacher would head to Las Vegas for a long weekend at the slot machines.
After she retired, the gambling escalated from once a year to frequent trips to "the boats," the floating casinos that line the Missouri River here. Ms. Johnson, who asked that her real name not be used, switched from quarter slots to dollar poker machines. She ran through her pension and Social Security checks, then her $60,000 annuity. After she lost that, she pawned $20,000 worth of jewelry and took out cash advances on credit cards in order to keep playing.
"I'd win occasionally, but of course I'd never get the jewelry out of hock, I'd just keep playing until I lost what I'd won," says the mother of grown twins. "The only time I ever ended up ahead is if I was winning when the casino closed."
The end came two years ago, when she was hit with a $12,000 tax bill. When that happened, she "finally had the guts" to sit down and tally up her credit card debt. It totaled more than $35,000. She declared bankruptcy and hung up her poker shade.
Johnson is hardly the only retiree at the roulette wheel. The spread of legalized gambling from the Nevada desert to casinos on riverboats and Indian reservations nationwide, combined with aggressive targeting of seniors by casinos, is renewing concern about one of the fastest-growing and most vulnerable groups of gamblers.
"There's no question senior gambling is on the rise," says Ron Karpin, head of the New Jersey Council on Compulsive Gambling and founder of the first senior gambling outreach program in the country. "They're the fastest-growing segment of the population, they're more affluent than ever, and - it's a sad comment on our society - they're bored."
Gambling counselors complain there is too little research on senior gamblers but point to one glaring statistic: the percentage of Americans 65 and older who said they recently had gambled jumped from 20 percent in 1974 to 50 percent in 1998, according to a report by the National Gambling Impact Study Commission. The report also found that the increase for seniors - who have seen gambling go from sin to social acceptance in their lifetimes - dwarfed that of any other age group.
In one sense the surfeit of senior gamblers is hardly surprising. Two states had some form of legalized gambling in 1976. Today, only two states do not have any form of legalized gambling.
The evidence of gambling's lure for seniors can be seen virtually daily on the front curb of casinos from Minnesota to Mississippi, where literally hundreds of tour buses disgorge the elderly on low- and no-fare day trips organized by civic and church groups.
It's not surprising more seniors consider a trip to the casinos an attractive outing. Casinos target older Americans with offers that include complimentary drinks and free valet parking. Stage shows feature members of swing-era big bands. One casino offers slot machines based on 1940s detective stories.
A casino in Iowa used to provide a 50 percent discount on prescription drugs to seniors who signed up for a players club card. In Missouri, there are free shuttles from senior centers to the casinos, where sometimes lonely retirees are often greeted by name and made to feel special.
The few existing studies on older gamblers appear to show that seniors are no more susceptible to problem gambling than are other age groups. Nevertheless, retired problem gamblers are in a riskier position because they do not have the income capacity to recoup severe losses.
What concerns Karpin and others is that senior gamblers appear more prone to use gambling as an emotional crutch - a form of escapism from the loss of a spouse, health concerns, or the tedium of retirement - and are therefore more likely to get hooked. And they worry that seeking assistance for problem gambling is a foreign concept to a generation that predates the self-help era.
Yet most seniors who gamble do so responsibly, often with a pre-set spending limit. For them, a day of low-budget glitz at a casino is a welcome respite from the tedium of retirement, whether they live in their own home or at a retirement center.
"We just came for a day out, and companionship - and hope!" says Patricia Bowker, shaking her empty coin cup inside the Station Casino here. "It's pretty harmless."
The retired civil servant and seven of her friends were on a day-long, bank-sponsored bus tour from rural Mascoutah, Ill. For $13 they received round-trip bus service and a breakfast buffet at the casino.
One of those friends is Lillian Holdener, a retired tax specialist, who gambles about twice a year.
"The closest I ever got to winning was the time I only lost 75 cents," she giggles. After an hour at the slot machines this day, "I'm already busted," she says, her voice barely audible above the din of music and clanging coins. Her self-imposed limit: $10. "Doesn't matter. We're out of here. We're going shopping this afternoon."
Dennis McNeilly, a psychologist at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, surveyed 7,000 seniors at retirement centers in Nebraska and found that bingo ranked as the No. 1 form of entertainment, followed by casinos. Both surpassed all other categories, including going to movies and plays, out to lunch with friends, shopping, or playing golf.
That was certainly the case for Johnson. She has her life back in order after seeking bankruptcy protection and counseling, though her annuity is gone and she had to refinance her house with a 30-year mortgage "I'll never live to pay off."
The tug is always there. "I seem to be on these seven-month cycles where I'll stay away from the boats for seven months and then break down and go once, lose a little - not a lot - confess to my counselor and then stay away for another seven months," she says. "Believe me, this isn't how I imagined retirement would be."
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor