LAS VEGAS -- Gambling is the lifeblood of the Las Vegas economy. For most bettors, it's all about entertainment, but for a small group, gambling can ruin lives. A local gambling addiction center is seeing an increase in senior citizen clients.
Whether they're lonely or bored, some end up spending countless hours at casinos spending their social security checks and retirement money. Some have even gambled their homes away.
Las Vegas happens to be one of the fastest growing retirement spots in the country, attracting people from all over the United States. It's a high-stakes town with plenty of glitz, glamour, and games. However, studies show about five percent of Nevadans have a serious gambling problem.
"Gambling just about stole my life. I became a liar, a cheat, a thief," said Linda Creelman, a counselor with the Problem Gambling Center.
Creel is a recovering gambling addict. She gambled for 25 years, off and on, in Las Vegas and the habit got out of control.
"Once you cross that fine line into compulsive gambling, you can't go back. I could never make just one bet," she said.
In recovery for years, she is now a counselor at the Problem Gambling Center and has noticed a troubling trend.
"I think, probably 40 percent of our clients are seniors," she said.
"Gambling is a serious addiction," said Dr. Rob Hunter, the founder of the Problem Gambling Center. "Forty percent of Clark County is not senior citizens, so 40 percent of my patients shouldn't be senior citizens, but they are."
He says he runs the largest gambling treatment center in the country.
"We have treated people in their 90s," he said.
The sounds of the machines and all those flickering lights can send some compulsive gamblers into a trance-like state. Dr. Hunter calls it "the zone."
"They're not playing for fun. They're not playing for money. They're playing for escape," he said.
Hunter doesn't think the gaming industry or the new, fancy machines are suddenly causing more addictions in older people. He just believes more seniors are living in southern Nevada, and getting hooked because they move here with a predisposition to compulsive gambling. For a pathological gambler, wagering triggers a specific neurotransmitter in the brain.
"My patients get a flood of dopamine when they gamble," Dr. Hunter said. "The good news is that this is a treatable illness."
Creelman says she is proof.
"I haven't made a bet going on 16 years, and I have an amazing life," she said.
The gaming industry has adopted a code of conduct for responsible gaming. Posted signage and brochures in casinos offer help, casinos can also map out the house's odds for gamblers, and guests can asked to be banned by the casino. But state funding for gambling disorders in Nevada is considered low, especially since the Silver State is the gold standard for everything else gaming.
"We're one of the last to the party and one of the lowest," Dr. Hunter said.
Someone addicted to gambling can seek help. The Problem Gambling Center recommends intensive outpatient treatment with group therapy. If you have a problem, or if your loved one needs help, please visit the following links:
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