Addicted to gambling

Gambling among older people and those who have suffered from the effects of gambling caused by others is largely unreported. 

Older lady on Pokies

It’s useful to be aware of the risks of gambling, and to know there is lots of help and advice available.

Diane Matthews is a counsellor for the Problem Gambling Foundation of New Zealand.

She’s worked in the addictions and health sector for 15 years.

Throughout her career she’s encountered several older people who have been affected by gambling harm.

“I worked with a man once who was a caregiver for his elderly mother,” she says.

“He was taking all her benefit to play the pokies and buying minimal food for her.

“He told me once he was playing the pokies and realised he had not given her dinner. He took a taxi home and asked the driver to wait while he heated up a tin of spaghetti in the microwave.

“He fed it to his mother, put her to bed fully dressed then got back into the taxi and went back to the pub to play the pokies until his money ran out.”

Ms Matthews says things changed when the man came to counselling.

“Together we went to Age Concern where they both got more support.”

“He also went to a budgeting service for some assistance in managing his money, and banned himself from all the pokie bars in his town.”

Losing all you have

The Gambling Act 2003 defines a problem gambler as a person whose gambling causes harm or may cause harm.

For some people, the consequences of their problems are devastating for themselves and often for others in their lives.

“I met an elderly couple who were left with nothing after their son asked for money to prop up his failing business, only to find that their son was a problem gambler,” says Ms Matthews.

“He gambled every cent they had saved for their retirement; they had to sell their home to pay off his loans for him.”

Admitting there is a problem can be difficult, especially when you have been ‘self-sufficient’, handled your own money all your life and survived recessions.

It can be pretty scary thinking your friends, family and community groups could find out you or someone you’re close to has a problem with gambling.

“I met a mother who lost her retirement money playing overseas lotteries,” recounts Ms Matthews.

“She wanted to leave her sons a large fortune but ended up losing all the money she had. Her sons ended up having to support her.”

Could I be at risk?

Older people can be more susceptible to gambling because after retirement you tend to have more spare time.

Ms Matthews says loneliness and post retirement boredom can be the biggest triggers, as well as guilt, shame and anger.

“A grandmother who was missing her children and grandchildren would gamble for companionship and ended up with a gambling problem."

Elderly on Pokies

“Because she had gambled all her money, she could never afford to go and visit them, but when they sent her money to buy a bus or plane ticket she would gamble.

“This resulted in a complete breakdown of the relationship with her family. They thought she didn’t care enough about them to stop gambling.”

The counsellor says she worked with the family to make changes.

“We encouraged them to buy her a bus or train ticket instead of giving her money,” she said.

“She was able to talk to her children about the loneliness she felt and the depression she had been fighting since their father had died.

“The family in turn became less angry and more supportive.”

Gambling can often set up a ‘smoke screen’ that masks underlying issues.

In some cultures it’s not acceptable to share your secrets outside the family.

For many gamblers the brain can enter a trance-like state while gambling, and so the everyday problems of life recede.

Help is at hand

Older women have become the new face of gambling in New Zealand in the last decade.

This is because it’s now socially acceptable for women to go out to casinos and pokie areas, and the regular security checks, security cameras, cheap meals and friendly staff make it a warm and safe place to spend your time.

There are reports of children and grandchildren moving in with their older parents or grandparents because they have no money to pay for accommodation because of gambling; rest home staff and their families are concerned about elderly parents or grandparents because they spend all their pension on Readers Digest lotteries; and there are reports of theft and pawning property that belong to the elderly to help finance someone else’s gambling.

Does any of this sound familiar? Help is just a phone call away.

If you are concerned about your own or someone else’s gambling contact the Ministry of Health's Gambling Helpline Services on 0800 654 655.