Elderly are pawns at casinos

September 23, 1998|By Froma Harrop

RIGHT THERE, sitting in his wheelchair in front of a slot machine, is an unforgettable old man. This visitor was already accustomed to seeing rows of silver heads working the slot machines as if they were stations on an assembly line. There are gamblers on canes, gamblers on walkers, and not a few in wheelchairs. But this one old guy distinguished himself: He had an oxygen tube going into his nose and was feeding quarters into the one-armed bandit as though it were an integral part of his life-support system.

Need it be added that this was a depressing sight? Even sadder than watching the elderly of America losing money amid the downscale glitz of Foxwoods Casino, the world's biggest gambling den, situated in Ledyard, Conn. They were doing it in a dark cavern. Outside was a champagne September morning of crisp, warm sunshine. Casinos receive the largest influx of elderly gamblers in the beginning of each month, when bank accounts receive a fresh infusion from Social Security. As the month rolls on, they feel less secure about making ends meet.

At lunch hour, the old folk leave their stations and wait in a snaking line to get a cafeteria meal. The elderly casino patrons tend to be modestly dressed. You imagine them buying their clothes at discount stores or factory outlets. They are the types to religiously organize supermarket coupons. Yet here they were, chasing an elusive dream of winning big money with savings that could have improved their lives in concrete ways -- say, buying a newer car, or traveling, or getting a new pair of shoes.

Depression kids

Oddest of all is the clash of cultures -- people of hard work filling the palace of the fast buck. These are members of the Depression generation.

One way casinos allay second thoughts about gambling is to offer a number of cheesy gimmicks to make their targets think they're getting a bargain. Foxwoods gives away the Wampum Card, a piece of identification that keeps track of how much you gamble. The more you gamble, the more points you get. These points can be applied toward the cost of a meal or other items. Having just lost $30 in a slot machine, the suckers marvel that they are getting a "free" piece of pizza. The valet parking service gives every exiting patron a $10 coupon to be applied to future bets. Its short expiration date assures a speedy return.

Why are these people doing this? Well, answering that question is also depressing. They are lonely, widowed and feel ignored by entertainment businesses that fawn on the young. They live in a car-oriented society that offers little public town life for people with time on their hands and limited mobility. The casino offers companionship and excitement.

The casinos pamper the elderly, as well they should. Older gamblers show up during the slower daytime hours, and they gravitate toward the slot machines. The slots are where the casinos make their big money. The less-profitable table games -- blackjack, craps, poker, roulette -- tend to attract a younger and more male crowd.

Thus, the casinos provide bus service, wheelchairs and aging entertainers. The nice young people who bring cars to the departing elderly customers at Foxwoods say with great tenderness, "Drive safely and come back again soon." The Bluff's Run Casino in Council Bluffs, Iowa, offers discounts on prescription drugs. The Lady Luck riverboat casino, which plies the Mississippi, provides special containers in the bathrooms for insulin needles.

Many people who gamble as a pastime manage to control their losses. But as wagering becomes an easily accessible form of local entertainment, more Americans are losing control. That includes the elderly, who get caught up in the hype and flashing lights and spend far beyond their means. Unlike other population groups, the elderly do not have many ways of replacing their losses.

Now who am I to tell others how they may spend their money? The swinging libertarian part of my brain says if they want to gamble, that's their business. If they lose, tough luck. But the public-spirited brain cells worry about the social health of our nation. It is distressing to recognize that the lives of our elderly are so isolated and dull that being taken advantage of is considered a day of fun. It's a very sad scene.

Froma Harrop is a Providence Journal editorial writer and columnist.

Pub Date: 9/23/98

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