THE BLOG
02/26/2014 08:50 pm ET Updated Apr 28, 2014

Casinos for Seniors: Full of Sound and Light, Signifying Emptiness

How do we hope our aging parents will spend their time? How do we hope to spend our time once we retire from our jobs and have the free time many of us routinely whine about not having? Casino gambling, it turns out, is the answer for many millions of seniors. And it's dismal.

Amy Ziettlow, a scholar affiliated with the Institute for American Values, has just released a sobering report on the stampede of walkers and wheelchairs into casinos. Seniors in Casino Land benefits from Ziettlow's perspective as a hospice chaplain, whose role is to help those facing death find "sources of hope in the midst of despair." Even with pain a constant burden and death near, it's possible to extract meaning and purpose from life. But Ziettlow's discussions with seniors in several casinos suggests that they're contenting themselves with mechanical substitutes for humans: slot machines. Again and again, the seniors Ziettlow chatted up volunteered that their time tethered to these merciless money-stealers was "just something to do."

Not much of a reason, right? There are other things to do, so why this one? Because, for many, there aren't many other good choices. Without a job or perhaps even a family to anchor them, seniors have to come up with other ways to occupy themselves, and at a time when their bodies and minds are declining. The owners of casinos have stepped artfully and opportunistically into this expanse of time, creating the illusion of caring about their superannuated clientele. The solicitude goes far beyond standard accommodations to the seniors' disabilities. Ziettlow's report looks at a senior-centered culture with disposal boxes for diabetic needles, adult diapers, and - incredibly, to me - even "an in-house pharmacy where 8,000 slot club points cover the $25 co-pay." There's also something called the "third of the month club," a promotional day for seniors who head straight for the casinos after receiving their social security checks.

It's no wonder some refer to casinos as "day care for the elderly."

But the term "care" is cruelly ironic, because the only care involved is the kind casino owners take to keep senior fannies welded to slot machine seats for hours on end. As Ziettlow discovered, the noise and lights make conversation difficult, and thereby cut the players off from each other. The enervating sound and lights cause cognitive problems, too; further enslaving the gamblers to the remorseless algorithms that pick up on their play patterns and exploit them, thereby encouraging further play with small payouts that mask the steady drip of losses.

Ziettlow's report powerfully captures the sodden sameness of hours spent at the slots. Seeking escape, perhaps, from their physical and emotional challenges, "they leave flattened, numbed, less motivated to live and conditioned to come back and sit at the machines again." And about 10 percent of seniors are at-risk gamblers, compared to only about 2-3 percent of the general population.

I don't really blame casino owners for this. As a casual look at the tacky opulence of these places reminds us, they're in this to make a profit -- and they do. Their success is, more than anything, a reflection of a broader societal failure to engage seniors in other, more worthwhile pursuits. Casinos are hospitable in the absence of alternatives. Ziettlow talks about senior centers as one such alternative. They can be places for engagement, activity, and personal growth. Yet governments have invested far more in promoting and financing commercial gambling than in setting up and funding places where seniors might engage in what the World Health Organization has provocatively called "active aging."

This unhealthy reliance on casinos has to change, because the baby boom's "silver tsunami" is about to hit, and retiring boomers can be expected to live even longer than current seniors. It's time to invest in community-building and -sustaining activities that aren't dependent on what Ziettlow memorably calls "an illusion of luck - an illusion that makes a sham of human dignity...and fashions an empty construct of 'fun' that lures us into a place of mindless escape rather than of mindful connection."

Casino gambling may be only a symptom of our failure to think creatively about how best to serve our seniors, but it is a terribly destructive one.