National Edition

Gray gambling: How gaming impacts seniors

Published: Thursday, July 10 2014 4:20 a.m. MDT

He doesn't hold any illusions about the odds of winning at a machine. He knows who gets the money.

"They are all geared to the casino's benefit," Donald says.

"You've just got to be lucky to win," his friend, Marjorie, jumps in. "You know that when you go to a casino you are losing money. It's not a good place to go. We know that. But we go and have fun."

At the end of the ride, the bus parks in front of the shiny golden pillars of the Montego Bay Casino, which is built so close to the border that the driver is in Utah as the seniors and other passengers step off the bus into Nevada. As they flow through the dark doors into the building, music plays just louder than the general din of bells and gongs; ABBA is singing "So when you're near me, darling can't you hear me, S.O.S."

The passengers scatter into the building. Donald and Marjorie seem to vanish in the cavernous casino and, like almost everybody on the bus, go their separate ways: Donald prefers video poker machines and Marjorie is proficient on a video slot machine called Coyote Moon.

"We are totally independent of each other once we are in the casino," Donald will say later. "And we spend half of our time looking for each other."

In the recent report "Seniors in Casino Land," Amy Ziettlow investigated the experiences of seniors in casinos for the Institute of American Values, a think tank based in New York City that emphasizes values such as thrift. Ziettlow, who had never spent time in a casino, was surprised by what she saw.

"I really expected it to not be that bad," Ziettlow says. "I could see the ads in Louisiana for casinos. It was just people laughing and smiling having fun together. I didn't understand modern casinos."

Instead, she found the opposite of the social event she envisioned.

"Everyone was an island," Ziettlow says. "Them and their machine."

She says some people identify with the machine — much like the dark-haired older woman winning that afternoon in Wendover: Her eyes transfix on the screen. She doesn't notice people walking by. Her hands are palm-to-palm, as if in prayer, with the tips of the index fingers lightly touching the straight tight line of her lips. She watches the screen as the winning noises continue and digits in the lower-right corner of the colorful screen increase. The reward isn't even real money this time — just casino points. She doesn't move. The figures on the screen are moving for her, caressing her senses in flashing light and tintinnabulation. Nobody intrudes on this intimate moment.

As an ordained pastor in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America who works with elder and hospice care, Ziettlow is concerned about the spiritual aspects of how people think superstitiously about slot machines. "The machines come to life, and people look for a hot machine," she says. "Coming to the casino became about the machine and not about themselves or their self worth or their connection to each other or the community."

Mark Bilkey, assistant professor in the counseling department at Adler School in Chicago who specializes in issues in aging, says trips to the casino can be very social — just not necessarily during the time the seniors are playing the machines.

"The socializing goes from the minute they think about going on the trip to the bus trip to the casino. There is more social life at lunch," he says. "The problematic gamblers are not going to be social. They are going to go off into their own space, find their own perfect machine and then veg."

It is the "veg" part that concerns critics.

'Like getting high'