When communities debate the opening of a new casino, the discussion typically begins with questions about the economic impact. Proponents of casinos argue that gambling revenue will aid municipal budgets, the casino will employ many people, and increases in tourism will develop the overall economy. Casino opponents typically counter by refuting claims of a tourism impact. They then highlight the potential for increases in problem-gambling rates, which will have a negative impact on young families and their children while placing strain on local social-support systems. The debate eventually boils down to a choice between economic progress and protecting families.
This focus on economics and families often excludes retired Ontarians from the discussion. Local job opportunities are seldom a top concern for pensioners and the focus on problem gambling as it affects young families implicitly excludes seniors from consideration. Yet a visit to any Ontario casino reveals that the clientele comprises many senior citizens.
An article we wrote along with Dr. Sean Doherty and Dr. Barbara Carmichael in the latest edition of The International Journal of Aging and Human Development and a report we recently prepared for Gambling Research Exchange Ontario used a survey conducted at Ontario casinos to explore the impact of a new casino on Ontario seniors. Our findings suggest that the recreational benefit of casinos for seniors should be given more consideration. Organized bus trips, for example, are a popular way for retired Ontarians to visit casinos. These are often organized within retirement homes or for the general public by casinos themselves. The trips serve as recreational exertions that provide an opportunity to gamble at casinos while shopping in nearby amenities and visiting local restaurants. Over three quarters of seniors in our study who visit casinos on a bus trip spend $100 or less on average per trip.
Most seniors who visit casinos, like those on bus trips, do so for the recreational aspects. A casino can be a safe, friendly environment to socialize and relax. In short, seniors visit casinos for many of the same reasons as non-seniors. Problem gambling is not an issue for the majority of these patrons.
The results from this study indicate that just over 40 per cent of survey respondents had almost no risk of experiencing problem gambling issues while less than a fifth exhibited behaviours that would warrant a high concern for problem-gambling issues. A more refined clinical tool would be necessary to identify actual problem gamblers; however, this study suggests that only a small percentage of adults who visit a casino will become problem gamblers. It is important to remember that this is the level of risk for seniors who have visited a casino. The risk for the general population of seniors would need to include those who do not visit casinos and would therefore be much lower.
These results should not suggest that problem gambling amongst Ontario seniors should be ignored. Our research revealed that of older adults who visit a casino, approximately one third of older adults who make less than $20,000 per year have signs of a gambling problem compared to less than one fifth of those who make more than $20,000 per year. For a low-income senior, problem gambling has the potential to negatively impact their well-being for the rest of their life. It is therefore important to ensure that supports are in place for seniors who experience a gambling problem.
While offering these supports we should keep in mind that most seniors visit casinos without facing a significant risk of becoming a problem gambler. These patrons enjoy casinos safely for leisure purposes. Seldom when we consider the impact of new casinos do we give credence to these recreational benefits. This is unfortunate as casinos can offer seniors an attractive, safe and welcoming recreational space.