As with many adventures, I didn't realize I was on one until I was deep in the belly of a southern Louisiana casino where 35 cent bets flowed faster than the free Diet Coke. My elbow rested on the walker of an elderly gentleman who was teaching me slots. He worried I was going to waste all my money. I appreciated his grandfatherly concern even as I struggled not to ask him, "Is this really a responsible thing to do?"
As a hospice professional and pastor, I realize the importance of communities encouraging active lifestyles among the elderly. By 2030, over 20 percent of our U.S. population will be over 65. Caregivers, churches, and governments will be looking for recreational outlets that offer community and fun while honoring the independence and dignity of older Americans. Half of all adult visitors to casinos last year aged 50 and older, so I decided to observe the American Gaming Association's (AGA) "Responsible Gaming Education Week" - which is held annually since 1998 in the first week of August - by asking: do casinos do justice to our seniors? What does it mean for anyone, much less vulnerable aging people, to gamble "responsibly"?
In an oft-quoted AGA survey from 2002 , the Peter D. Hart Research Associates, Inc., and The Luntz Research Companies report that 62 percent of seniors see casinos as merely an inexpensive day out for someone on a fixed income. They argue that "90 percent of seniors don't want someone telling them how to spend their time or money" and that "senior citizens believe gambling is a question of personal freedom...[that] they should be able to go into a casino, have their own budget, and spend their disposable income the way they want." The AGA uses their annual "Responsible Gambling Education Week" to suggest that pathological gambling is rare. But reading between the lines of the "educational" factoids and pop quizzes they offer it is easy to see the real message: there is no such thing as luck. The longer and faster you play any "game," the more money the house guarantees you will lose.
My adventure begins with a leisurely, summer weekday morning drive down River Road in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. The casino boat parking lot is nearly full at 11:30 a.m. Valets are using casino-logoed scooters to assist disabled drivers from their cars and through the sliding glass doors. They shout "Good luck to you!" as nurse's aides, clad in scrubs, unload other seniors from nursing home and assisted living facility vans, pushing their wheelchairs into the brightly lit facility.
Inside, an elderly man sleeps with his walker at his side. I am looking for the buffet ($2.99 senior day) but am soon lost, and I end up wandering down the descending ramp that leads to the gambling boat. When I pass through a turnstile three blazer-clad security men offer a jovial, "Good luck to you! Good luck to you!" A silver-haired man, tripping on the high pile of the carpet, redirects me to the buffet.
There I meet Mrs. Carol and Mr. Herb, a married couple in their 70's, who like me are freezing in the over-air conditioned space. Mr. Herb sports an ornate carved cane with a stone handle. They come to the casino at least two times a week, but they weren't actually going to play that day; they just came out for the cheap buffet. Video poker is their game. When they learn that I have never played the game they warn me off it, suggesting I get an instructional book at the library first so that I don't lose all my money. They also instruct me to, "Get a card!" Ms. Carol takes out her card to show me but warns that my card will be red, not gold like hers. She has already worked her way up to "celebrity" status at the casino. Soon their friend, Mr. Norm passes by and shares that his wife won $4,000 the day before. When he leaves, Ms. Carol confesses to Mr. Herb, "I think we should go play a little...I can't believe Janice won that....We're already here, we might as well play."
They leave, and I head for three floors of gaming where I am enveloped in a fog of red, blue and gold lights. Slot machines are clanging and shaking, some old fashioned looking and some technical, digital, computerized. No one is talking. Old and disabled people are scattered, each alone, staring at machines. I see one long line of slot machines played by a wheel-chaired elder, a standing nurse, another wheel-chaired elder, another standing nurse, on and on, each mindlessly hitting a flashing button.
I can't bear to watch them for too long, so I make my way to the penny slots on the far wall. Sitting next to a gentleman, his walker at his side, I break into his trance. "I've never played this machine before," I say. "Is it hard?"
"Huh?" He pauses, blinks and turns to help me, "Nah. It tells you what to do... You want to get 7's. If you get blue, red, or green you can get extra spins."
"Do you mind if I watch you first?"
After struggling with the machine accepting his $5 bills, he explains how the casino tickets work and also how you have to bet at least 35 cents or it won't play, but you can better higher. I watch a bit and then give it a try. As I insert my money and start to push the 50 button, he stops me. "Oh! Don't do that! Just bet the lowest to get used to it. You don't want to lose your money so fast."
I thank him for the advice, play a few times and cash out, then stop for some free Diet Coke.
On the next floor I meet a white-haired lady with a cane sitting at a newer computerized slot machine.
"I've never played this machine...any advice?"
"Oh, just hope it wins!"
I go to put my $10 in the machine and she says, "You don't have a card?"
"No," I reply, "Do I need a card to play?
"Well, it's doesn't help you win but you can get free stuff with one. Just show them your driver's license and they'll get you started."
I put my money in and ask, "Okay, what next?"
"You'll want to play all five wheels. You can bet different amounts." I notice that she always plays 50 so I ask if 50 is her thing. "No, I just always play the second button whatever it is."
"Okay, I will try that too."
"Oh, no, no! You play the lowest. Don't waste your money like that." I mentally note that she is now the third senior to worry about me wasting my money. So, I play the 25. As I hit different things she explains them to me. When I somehow manage to get back to my original $10, I cash out. As my ticket prints, she says, "Good for you! That's the way to do it. Break even."
As I sit back I ask, "Do you come here often?" She also sits back to talk.
"Well, not as much as I used to. My husband has been real sick, in the hospital," she sighs, "Almost lost him. We used to get to the big casinos on the coast all the time. We finally got to Marksville a few weeks ago. We come a few times a week." She pauses. "It's something to do."
When I cash out my $10 the cashier repeats the incessant refrain I have heard from every casino employee that day, "Good luck to you!" I find myself instinctively responding, "And also with you." My liturgical colors are showing, even though the call-and-response of the passing of the peace I practice each week in worship offers reconciliation and human connection, not a hollow illusion of luck.
Driving home, I realized that the only moments of true dignity and community I witnessed occurred when I broke into a stranger's escape by offering a genuine smile and eye contact, politely requesting help or advice, and asking questions about his or her life outside of the casino boat. This led to laughter, a sharing of burdens, human connection. When we sat silently with our free sodas mindlessly hitting a slot machine button, the contrast could not be greater from communal games of bingo. In those, a nursing home or assisted living facility profits nothing from the seniors playing. Casino slot machines are designed, as Dr. Natasha Schull writes, to extract maximum profit for the casino from those who play. They are built to create addicted zombies, something any of us, but especially the most vulnerable, can fall prey to.
Casinos bank on our buying into an illusion of luck - an illusion that creates a sham of human dignity, a false sense of community, and an empty construct of "fun" that lures us into a place of mindless escape rather than of mindful connection. Ultimately, the transaction always profits the house. Now that the government is the biggest sponsor of casino gaming, all of us - even those who never visit casinos - have to ask, are we turning a blind eye to a government-sponsored predator that creates false community, drains money and undermines dignity for those most vulnerable among us? Are casinos really the most responsible form of recreation we can offer our seniors?
This post originally appeared on The Atlantic.