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  Action vs. Escape Gambling  

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illustration of poker chips Experts have identified two distinct profiles for compulsive gamblers: action gamblers and escape gamblers.

Action Gamblers
By the time they reach their senior years, action gamblers have likely been battling a gambling problem for many years. They may have started gambling as early as their teenage years, placing small bets on sporting events, or playing cards with friends or relatives. Unlike escape gamblers, who prefer games of luck, action gamblers gravitate toward skill games like poker, black jack, craps, horse and dog racing, and sports betting. Action gamblers are often men with domineering, controlling and manipulative personalities.

Escape Gamblers
Unlike action gamblers, escape gamblers prefer games of luck. Even if they don't begin gambling until their senior years, escape gamblers can become fascinated with slots, video poker or keno machines. These machines are fun and exciting, they don't talk back, and they don't require a great deal of knowledge or concentration. Playing them allows the person to escape from physical or emotional pain, as they move into an almost hypnotic state. It doesn't matter whether the escape gambler is winning or losing. In fact, money becomes like play money. What they seek are more and more opportunities to chase away their worries with the push of a button or pull of an arm.

Seniors are vulnerable to becoming escape gamblers when several factors come together:

  • Acceptability
    Much of the stigma that once surrounded gambling is now gone, especially for women. Community groups visit casinos and sponsor casino nights. Lottery tickets are sold everywhere. Casinos market themselves as a fun, exciting and safe entertainment alternative. In short, there is much less stigma attached to saying that you are engaged in gambling activities.

  • Accessibility
    Most seniors don't have to drive far to find a place or a means to gamble. And for those who do, there are bus trips and other gambling packages that make it convenient and affordable.

  • Lack of Knowledge
    Most seniors simply don't have enough information about addiction to assess the risks. Those providing gambling opportunities are not likely to educate them. As with any addictive behavior, education is often a tremendous deterrent, but in this case, it is not readily available.

  • Life Factors
    A number of things may have happened in the persons life, making them more vulnerable to the anesthetizing quality of escape gambling:
    • boredom;
    • abuse;
    • loneliness;
    • grief;
    • relocation;
    • loneliness;
    • stress;
    • depression;
    • isolation;
    • chronic pain;
    • lack of identity;
    • fear of death;
    • health problems;
    • loss of income/home; and
    • loss of a loved one.

  Why Seniors Gamble  

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  • Entertainment
    For most gamblers, the activity is fun and entertaining. It allows seniors to escape from worries for awhile.

  • Limited Options
    Seniors are subject to limited alternatives for socializing, often due to availability or physical restraints.

  • High Disposable Income
    For some seniors, losing "a few dollars" gambling will not cause an unreasonable financial burden. Repeated losses can quickly deplete large sums of money or create huge debts.

  • "The Big Win"
    Lower income seniors chase the possibility of winning big and being "set for life."

  • Opportunity/Availability
    Opportunities for gambling have increased dramatically in the past decade. Senior groups and living centers take trips to casinos. Lottery tickets are sold by convenience stores, gas stations and supermarkets. Schools, churches and not–for–profit groups sponsor bingo seven days a week. Even the Internet offers gambling action 24–hours–a–day from the convenience of home.

  • Changing Cultural Values
    Gambling was once seen as a &qupt;sinful," immoral activity. Now it is promoted as safe, fun, wholesome entertainment.

  • Boredom or Loneliness
    Many seniors have too much time on their hands when they retire or lose a spouse. Gambling fills the empty hours.

  • Casino Hospitality

  • Unlike some forms of entertainment, casinos are very user-friendly. They are often staffed by people who are friendly, respectful and treat seniors as valued guests.

  • Peer Pressure
    The belief that "everyone else is doing it, what harm can it be," can overshadow reasoning and clear thinking.

  • Perceived as Safe

  • Many seniors feel safe in the gambling environment, with guards on duty 24–hours–a–day, inside and out, and well–lit public areas.
  • Excitement
    The glitz and glamour of casino life can be exhilarating for those seniors who have never had that kind of wealth in their lives.

  Acceptability of Gambling  

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Gambling is everywhere in our society today. In a few decades, it has been transformed from a shady, illegal activity conducted in back rooms, to a legitimate form of recreation and entertainment. Lotteries pump dollars into state coffers for education. Local casinos pay taxes that improve roads, support schools and promote tourism. Illegal gambling still exists, but with so much above-the-board activity, it is often overlooked (at least by the public). No one ever has to go far or wait long to find another opportunity to gamble, whether it is a lottery, a casino or a horse racing track.

  Why Seniors Are More Vulnerable  

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Seniors are often more vulnerable to gambling addiction because of a number of life factors. For example, they may seek to mask the pain associated with losing a spouse, they may be lonely or depressed, or they may be facing financial or health problems. These factors can predispose a person to the hypnotic, anesthetizing effect of gambling.


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For more information, contact the Illinois Department on Aging's Senior HelpLine.

Section Links

Action vs. Escape gambling
Why seniors gamble
Types of gambling
Warning signs of problem gambling
Are you a problem gambler?
Are you living with a compulsive gambler?
Rules for responsible gambling
Help and resources

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