Local seniors join growing trend: Bus trips to casinos

By Jennifer Snyder - News-Sentinel Features Editor

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Copyright 2005 - Lodi (CA) News-Sentinel

A small crowd of Lodi seniors piled on to a charter bus on a bright, warm Monday morning in July. The bus, from Boomerang Tours, was parked in front of the LOEL Center and Gardens, and it was headed to Black Oak Casino in Sonora. For some seniors, getting on the bus was a monthly tradition; for others it was their first time. And other seniors just go once in a while.

Senior gambling has increased in the past few decades, and casinos cater to seniors with bus tours and promotions. While going to casinos may be a once-in-a-while social outing for most seniors, it can become a problem leading to addiction.

Buses filled with seniors go to Indian gaming casinos, Reno and Tahoe, every day. A bus tour group leaves from the LOEL Center once a month, and bus tours go to Jackson Rancheria Indian Casino every Thursday morning from the K-Mart parking lot. Most seniors hit the slot machines while there.

From 1975 to 1998, the number of senior gamblers increased by 45 percent, according to the Connecticut Council on Problem Gambling.

"This is the most popular sport for seniors," Diane Owen, bus driver for Boomerang Tours, said, as seniors filed past her on to the bus.

"It's an epidemic," Lodi senior Jane Knaack said with a grin as she got on the bus.

As the 45 seniors got on the bus, the sound of a hand-held electronic card game could be heard; one senior was practicing on the way to the casino.

Bus tours are popular

Diane Owen drove the bus as her husband Laurie (short for Lawrence) entertained the seniors with jokes. Diane Owen jumped in with embarrassing stories about her husband. During each segment of the trip, Laurie Owen, who is from Australia, held a raffle for small prizes. The bus wound through Oakdale, taking the least curvy route to Sonora also known as the "long way around."

Bus tours are cheap, at $10 or $15 a ride, and seniors get most of that money back in cash and coupons once at the casino. The Owens take busloads of people to various places including Reno and Tahoe, Las Vegas, the northwest, San Francisco and the Sacramento area.

Some of the seniors are "regulars" and go on the casino trips each month, or every few months, said staff at the LOEL Center. Seniors look forward to the trips and often ask when the next trip will be.

It's not just the gambling that draws seniors to go on these trips and visit casinos. Some seniors go for the bus ride and the possibility of making friends; the trips get them out of the house and give them something to do, whether with friends and family or while getting to know a new group of people.

"I go for the social part I'm not a gambler," said Noma Sawtelle, who also enjoys the ride to Sonora. "We don't spend very much."

Groups of friends went together, even if they didn't like gambling much.

Quite a few people call the Hutchins Street Square Senior Center to ask about bus trips to Jackson Rancheria, said Debbie Blankenship, who works in the Senior Center. She added that the seniors think the bus rides are a bargain because they get money back, as well as a book of coupons.

Senior gambling trends

Between 1975 and 1997, the number of American adults 65 years of age or older who had ever gambled increased by 45 percent.
The percentage of women 65 years of age or older who had ever gambled rose 20 percent from 1994 to 1998.
Gambling is the most frequently identified social activity among adults 65 years of age and older.
Older adult patrons at gambling facilities are more than three times as likely to be "at risk" for problem gambling than other older adults randomly chosen from the same community, are six times as likely to be "problem gamblers," and almost four times as likely to be "probable pathological gamblers."
Source: Connecticut Council on Problem Gambling.

"Anything cheap is popular," said Ann Arieda-Hintz, director of senior services at the center. She doesn't understand why seniors would go to gamble, but is sure they like going on the trips to be social. To her, the money they used for gambling could go toward their daily life expenses such as medications.

Michael Cohen is a graduate student studying learning and decision-making at the University of California, Davis. He suggests that seniors might gamble because they are bored or may have a late-life crisis.

"It's where they feel they should have as much fun as possible, knowing that they might not have much longer to enjoy the luxury of taking risks and fun trips to casinos," he said.

Casinos cater to seniors

Casinos offer incentives for seniors to gamble. O'Brien said that Wednesdays, Black Oak Casino offers Young at Heart senior promotions. The first is a breakfast buffet at $3.99 per person. Also, gamblers with player cards can earn double points all day (points collected may lead to cash). A free slot tournament is offered, and about 100 people enter, O'Brien said.

"We see the majority of seniors as slot players, and they pack our penny slots," he said. Although, on Wednesdays, a couple of card tables offer lower betting limits.

About two to five busloads of people come per day, with the most on Wednesdays, he said.

"I know we have a lot of guests who are 55 and over who come regularly, and we picked one day to focus on them," O'Brien said. "Seniors like to go out and have fun it's a safe environment."

O'Brien said seniors' safety is ensured because the casino is staffed with emergency medical technicians (who have saved a few lives so far) and surveillance cameras. He realizes that seniors have medical concerns, and if any of them have problems, someone will be quick to aid them.

With incentives, safety and convenience drawing seniors to casinos, watching for signs of gambling problems is important.

Gambling itself can become a problem. Major signs include isolation and gambling much longer and spending more than they planned, said Bruce Roberts, executive director of the California Institute on Problem Gambling. It becomes a problem when they choose gambling over other activities with friends and family, sell belongings to have money to gamble, use gambling to try to make money and their attitudes change, according to Gambler's Anonymous.

Roberts said the percentage of seniors calling the California institute's Helpline has increased. In 1998, 9.1 percent of callers were people ages 56 and over; in 2004, that number was 16. 3 percent.

"There's no question about the reason," Roberts said. "Gambling is much more prevalent in California now than in 1998."

He added that the number of people who gamble doubles when they live within 50 miles of a casino. Also, a lot more people are in the senior age group than six years ago.

"They have a lot more discretionary money to spend on gambling," he said. Plus, they have time during the day, and casinos market heavily to seniors, offering bus trips and other promotions.

Roberts said seniors can get into trouble because they go through a lot of life-changing experiences such as chronic diseases, loneliness and loss of spouse that may lead them to fill up their time with gambling.

Friends and family should watch for the signs and let seniors know how much they are valued, that they are concerned and how gambling is affecting them, Roberts said.

Heading to the slot machines

The Lodi group arrived at the casino around 10:30 a.m. Everyone received a big, bright pink Black Oak Casino sticker. Each bus group got different colored stickers. This way, people could tell who was on their bus.

The seniors signed up for a Player's Card, which allows them to accumulate points for every dollar they spend, and they got their coupon books, which included a coupon that could be cashed for $5. Some seniors went to eat, and others staked out their slot machines.

Roy Wilson pressed the button on his slot machine and watched the characters on the screen spin. As soon as the characters came to a stop, he pressed the button again. He watched his credits go up and down, and every once in a while, he put another bill in the machine.

After Wilson saw a flier about the casino trip, he decided to go. He said he doesn't risk much money.

"I set a limit on what I'm going to spend," he said, echoing the sentiment of many seniors on the trip.

They set aside a certain amount to spend, and when it's gone, it's gone. But somehow, they manage to stretch their money over about four hours at the slot machines. Some casinos' slot machines pay out in coupons rather than buckets of nickels or quarters, so seniors can easily take their coupons and insert them in another machine, save them for later or cash them in.

"Most of our senior players know their limits and control their impulses," said Al O'Brien, marketing and entertainment director at Black Oak Casino.

Cohen suggested reasons that seniors might be attracted to slot machines rather than tables.

"Slots are very easy, very solitary, and very nonjudgmental," he said, adding that tables have higher betting minimums than machines do. "Penny, nickel and quarter slot machines are always in ample supply."

A couple of Lodi seniors said they go to the casino, pay their dues and come back in several months.

One Lodi senior woman casually pressed the button on a barnyard animals nickel slot machine over and over again. The woman, who preferred not to be named because she didn't want to be embarrassed, said she didn't know how she won when the screen showed that she received credits. She said it was a "no-brainer" game. But she went on the trip to get out of town and have fun with friends.

The big winner of the day was a Lodi teacher who preferred not to be named because of possible embarrassment. On a penny machine, playing 50 credits at a time, she won more than $800.

At about 3 p.m., the Lodi seniors pulled away from their machines and cashed out their coupons and walked back out to the bus. All were smiling and laughing, whether they won or lost. They were there to socialize. On the way home, some chatted about their day while others took the opportunity to take a nap. They got off the bus in Lodi, some with empty pockets, and others with a bit of extra cash.