Michael De Groote, Deseret News
WENDOVER, Nevada — Deep inside the perpetual twilight of a windowless casino in this border town, a sudden noise rises above the background of buzzes, gongs, bells and music riffs. Somewhere behind this or that row of slot machines, an insistent, staccato "ding, ding, ding, ding" accompanies a flashing light signaling someone has won.
The winner is a dark-haired older woman. She sits in front of the gleaming metal and vibrant dancing colors of a video slot machine, leaning forward, shoulders slumped. She seems to be almost in a trance. A yellow cord attached to her clothes links her to a card in the machine — a plastic card called a "players card" that helps the casino keep track of all her betting, winning and losing.
Gone are the clanking cascades of coins once common in casinos. Winnings are now electronic and dispensed on silently printed paper tickets that can be cashed out or bet on another machine. People can also rack up points for freebies at the casinos with their players cards, which are tethered to patrons like small pets on a leash.
This woman, playing on a recent Tuesday afternoon, is like many other seniors who visit casinos in America. According to a 2013 report by the American Gaming Association, one-third of Americans (34 percent) visited a casino in the past 12 months. Twenty-eight percent of people aged 65 and older visited a casino in the past 12 months. An article in Psychology Today, however, puts the percentage much higher: David Oslin at the University of Pennsylvania claims that 70 percent of people 65 years and older "had gambled in the previous year and that one in 11 had bet more than he or she could comfortably afford to lose."
A measly 6 percent of senior casino visitors go because they want to win and like to gamble, according to a 2002 study by Janet Hope and Linda Havir in the Journal of Aging Studies; rather, most say gaming gives them something to do (24 percent) or they participate for fun and socialization (35 percent). Yet, when they do frequent a casino, they enter a carefully constructed world that is less social than it is primarily solitary.
Some observers and critics of the gambling industry say seniors are being taken advantage of and society can do better for its older citizens. They claim a trip to the casino may become part of a pattern of addiction or problem gambling that will threaten seniors' fixed incomes and retirement savings.
Those in the industry, however, say such characterizations are unfair and unfounded. A new poll commissioned by the American Gaming Association shows that 56 percent of casino gamblers are between the ages of 21 and 49 years old and that 87 percent of Americans say "gambling is an acceptable activity."
But critics counter that casinos are not just looking for casual players. The slot machines and players cards are used, they say, to identify potential hard-core gamblers, including seniors, luring them to keep playing — and losing.
"What (casinos) want to do, for every 20 seniors who come through, is find a couple of them that they can take for all they're worth," says Les Bernal, national director of Stop Predatory Gambling, based in Washington, D.C., and a critic of how casinos market to seniors. "That's the business. And seniors are one of the most susceptible populations in the country to these incredibly predatory business practices that are used by casinos."
Early that Tuesday morning, about 70 people boarded a double-decker "fun bus" in Salt Lake City for a 90-minute ride to Wendover.
Among the passengers were 84-year-olds Donald and Marjorie (who asked that their real names would not be used in this article). Donald has been gambling since the 1950s and likes to play the video poker machines and the card game blackjack. "I take a certain amount out, but I never spend it all," Donald says with a laugh, "because if it looks bad, I'll taper down."