It’s barely noon, and 78-year-old Rose Kario is already $300 in the hole. With each puff of her cigarette and each losing spin, she grows more agitated.
“Come on, sweetie pie,” she whispers to a clanging slot machine she has been feeding for more than an hour at Casino Pauma in northern San Diego County. “Come to Mama.”
A few minutes later, Kario’s patience is gone. She swears as another spin comes up empty.
Two seats over, 80-year-old Clara Stern isn’t having much luck either. But as she watches the last of her $200 in credits spin away, Stern says she is getting her money’s worth.
Cost what it may -- and gambling has cost her plenty -- the casino visit is a welcome respite from what for her is the monotony of old age.
“I have no limit,” Stern says in a voice husky from years of chain-smoking. “I don’t know if I’m going to wake up tomorrow.”
Kario and Stern are among thousands of senior citizens in California who have become regular customers of the state’s growing number of Indian casinos, which now look to the elderly for half their business, experts say. Casinos actively encourage the trend by dispatching fleets of buses to retirement communities and senior centers and by offering incentives such as buffet vouchers.
The trend reflects a national pattern: A study by the federal National Gambling Impact Study Commission in 1999 found that the fraction of U.S. seniors who gambled jumped from 20% in 1974 to 50% in 1998, a surge unmatched by any other age group during a period when casinos proliferated across the country.
It’s still unclear, however, what easy access to casino gambling means for senior citizens in California, where Native American tribes have opened 54 casinos jammed with as many as 60,000 slot machines.
Although some experts worry about gambling addictions, many retirees say casinos have improved the quality of their lives by providing a change of pace and intellectual stimulation.
“We’re not interested in sitting home and watching TV every day,” said Phyllis Zalomek, 82, who arrived at Casino Pauma on a chartered bus from Leisure World in Laguna Woods along with Kario, Stern and about 50 others. “It’s a place to go, a place to occupy your mind.”
Experts on gambling and aging agree with many senior gamblers that casinos do offer a change of scene that is attractive -- even, perhaps, beneficial.
“Seniors are often dealing with loss of a spouse, loneliness, boredom, or they are unable to cope with retirement. For all those reasons, casinos can be a very comfortable place for seniors,” said Bruce Roberts, president of the California Council on Problem Gambling.
One recent study concluded that recreational gamblers older than 65 reported better overall health than their non-gambling peers. The social, physical and cognitive stimulation of gambling could be part of the reason, said Yale epidemiologist Rani Desai, one of the study authors.
It also could simply be that “among the older folks, gamblers are healthier to begin with” -- healthy enough to go to casinos, Desai said.
Despite the potential benefits, many experts say gambling addictions are being kindled -- with unforeseeable consequences for retirees and their families.
“Ever since the growth of Indian casinos, so many more seniors are gambling away their golden years,” said Suzanne Graupner Pike, a psychologist with the San Diego Center for Pathological Gambling. “It’s tragic.”
No hard statistics are available, but seniors are just as vulnerable as younger people to gambling problems, they say, and the proliferation of casinos inevitably will ruin lives.
Pike, who has been treating gamblers for 11 years, said one-third of her nearly 50 patients are seniors, and each is hooked on gambling at Indian casinos. Several of her elderly patients have refinanced their homes to pay off gambling debts, some have filed for bankruptcy and a few have attempted suicide, she said.
“Aging is a time of repeated losses, and that can lead to depression,” said Pike, who gets most of her referrals from a Gamblers Anonymous toll-free hotline. “Seniors are separating from their children geographically and losing their sense of self through retirement. So they go to the casinos to escape from their lives.”
Casinos welcome retirees with enthusiasm -- in part because they arrive during the day, when other gamblers are scarce.
“Seniors are half the market of Indian casinos,” said Bill Thompson, a University of Nevada-Las Vegas professor of public administration who has written nine books on gambling. “They are the perfect demographic for the casinos.”
Kathy Swank, a spokeswoman for Harrah’s Rincon, another north San Diego County casino, agreed. “Seniors are a great market for us,” said Swank, who said her casino did 42% of its September business with adults older than 60. “They have more discretionary income and more time on their hands,” Swank said. “During the week, the seniors and the bus program support us.”
To keep the seniors coming, Harrah’s and other casinos pay independent bus operators to maintain elaborate schedules, funneling in retirees from throughout Southern California. In September alone, 12 Harrah’s buses carried more than 32,000 people -- 80% of them older than 60 -- to the casino.
One of those buses goes to south Orange County’s Leisure World every weekday, arriving at 8 a.m. and returning by dinnertime. Two other Indian casinos each send buses to the retirement community once a week.
In addition, the largest social organization at Leisure World, the Players Club, charters buses to casinos on average three times a week. The group used to offer mostly trips to the theater. Today, its 400 loyal members mostly go to casinos and gamble.
About 50 Players Club members are visiting Casino Pauma on this recent trip. At 10 a.m., they are nearly alone in the dark dome-shaped building off California 76 in an empty, wooded patch of northern San Diego County.
There is a long wooden bar and tables for blackjack, poker, pai gow, roulette and craps. But most of them are empty, their dealers waiting quietly. The seniors descend instead on the slot machines -- and stay there all day.
Among them are Kario and Stern, both dedicated gamblers who visit casinos as much as three times a week. Unlike most of the others from Leisure World, they also travel regularly to Laughlin, Nev., and Las Vegas -- where Stern, in particular, likes to play poker, blackjack and craps in addition to the slots.
Stern and Kario are not only the highest rollers among the Leisure World group, they’re also the most dapper. While much of the crowd is dressed in sweat shirts and tennis shoes, Stern is wearing white slacks and a red blouse, Kario an expensive tan suit.
By 2 p.m., Kario, Stern and three friends have decided it’s finally time for lunch. But no one really feels like eating. Sitting at a table outside the casino coffee shop, they nibble on eclairs, cake and tarts, smoke cigarettes and reminisce.
After lunch, Stern and Kario begin to cut their losses and move to the quarter slots. Stern’s luck doesn’t improve, so she tries using her feet to tap the button.
A few minutes later, restless, she gets up and does a little dance, slowly twirling, laughing and waving her arms. The movement helps loosen up her arthritic right leg. But it doesn’t change her fortunes.
Looking for some comic relief, Stern approaches a cocktail waitress. “Honey, are you with the casino?” she says. “Can you fix this machine? It’s taking all my money.”
Stern considers casinos her sanctuary. Stern, a twice-widowed survivor of Auschwitz, flees her Laguna Woods condominium three days a week for the comfort of the Indian casinos.
She says she doesn’t know or care how much she’s lost over the years but acknowledges that she refinanced her Leisure World condo this year to pay off gambling debts.
Susan Conforti, Stern’s daughter, believes the casinos are therapeutic and enthusiastically approves of her mother’s habit.
Her two sisters “think she’s gambling away their inheritance,” Conforti said. “But my mom has had a really rotten life. And if the slot machines are a legal way of numbing yourself, I say go for it.”
That’s how Stern sees it. “I have such a sad past,” she says, taking a drag from a cigarette with her left hand and playfully pounding the dollar slot machine with her right. “This is my enjoyment.”