Fold 'em

Every Monday and Saturday night, Jeff meets up with about a dozen people at St. Francis Episcopal Church in Green Valley. But they're not talking about spiritual matters, they're talking about gambling.

Jeff, who lives in Sahuarita, and the others are members of Gamblers Anonymous. They all want to quit gambling and they gather to help themselves and each other. Jeff's last name isn't being disclosed to keep his privacy.

Jeff, 61, started gambling straight out of high school. The California native joined the military and was a single guy living in government quarters with a decent paycheck and no responsibilities. At first, he was betting on pool games and cards, then horse and dog racing and sporting events.

“I gambled on pretty much everything there is to gamble on,” he said. “The death of me, though, was when I had access to online sports betting and casinos.”

According to the National Council on Problem Gambling, two to three percent of Americans meet the criteria for problem gambling. That's around 6 million adults and a half-million teenagers.

A 2003 study showed 2.3 percent of Arizonans are problem gamblers, said Caroline Oppleman, a spokeswoman for the Arizona Department of Gaming.

In fiscal year 2017, which ended June 30, 310 people called the state’s problem gaming helpline and 39 of those calls came from Pima County, according to the Arizona Department of Gaming.

Although local statistics are hard to come by, Pam Koopman, executive director of the Arizona Council on Compulsive Gambling, said a growing number of seniors seems to be seeking help for compulsive gambling. At least 30 to 35 percent of the callers to their hotline are older adults, she said.

“I’ve had many calls from the Green Valley area because of the casino that’s close by,” Koopman said. “A lot of the care homes bus people to the casinos and they are there four or five hours before they are bused back. The casino becomes a highlight of their day and their life.”

According to the state Division of Problem Gambling, 50 percent of hotline callers cited problems with slot machines and 22 percent said they were problem card players.

While the vast majority of people can gamble without it becoming an issue, there will always be a certain percentage who will become addicted, Koopman said.

Seniors tend to gamble because of the social interaction, the perceived security in gambling venues, the excitement, and the fact they sometimes win, Koopman said.

“For some, there’s a stigma attached to gambling and they do it in secret. But for many people, they think, ‘If the bus from the senior center is taking us to the casino, it must be OK,'” Koopman said.

It’s only when they or family members start to see the financial impact gambling has had on them that they realize they might have a problem, she said.

“We’ve had calls where they’re spending their entire Social Security check at the casino, or if they’re married, they’re spending their spouses entire check,” Koopman said.

There have also been times when the problem has been discovered because several family members, in talking with each other, realize their loved one has been making the rounds among them to borrow money, she said.

Sometimes gambling addictions get so bad, they lead to criminal behavior, even among older people, Koopman said. In just one example, a former accountant for the Tucson Museum of Art was sentenced in 2009 to five years in prison a week before her 63rd birthday for embezzling nearly $1 million.

'Endless circle'

Before he sought help 17 years ago, Jeff said he went through thousands of dollars and a divorce.

“I started to believe that my family was better off without me,” he said.

He remembers the days when he kept thinking that if he won he’d be able to recover his losses, but it ended up being an endless circle.

Since he moved to Sahuarita two years ago, he’s been attending GA meetings at St. Francis and a couple groups in Tucson.

The St. Francis group is made up primarily of people between 65 and 70 years old, he said. Many of them became addicted to gambling at the casinos, others ran into trouble with lottery tickets.

“A lot of them go to the casinos because they’re lonely or grieving,” Jeff said. “There’s no question in my mind that it starts out innocent with the social aspect. They go for fun with a friend and they can’t stop until their bank accounts are drained.”

The good news is there is help, Koopman and Jeff said.

Path to recovery

Besides Gamblers Anonymous, there are treatment providers licensed by the Arizona Department of Gaming’s Division of Problem Gambling.

Jim Soward, a Tucson therapist, has been treating problem gamblers since 2000, and has had several clients from the Green Valley/Sahuarita area.

“When people start to lose their purpose or significance they look for things to fill that void,” and one of them is gambling, Soward said.

One of the first things he does is urge his patients to ask casinos to add them to their exclusion list. Once they are on the list, they are no longer permitted on the premises even if they later change their minds.

According to the Division of Problem Gambling, there are more than 7,600 people on the self-exclusion list in Arizona. Between 400 and 500 people sign up every year.

Soward works with clients to get rid of the feelings that drive them to gamble, such as loneliness, while urging them to find alternative things to do, whether it’s volunteering, developing a hobby or going out with a church group.

Soward also recommends they take steps to limit their access to cash, whether it’s getting rid of credit cards with cash advances, putting their money into a savings account that doesn’t come with an ATM card, or handing over their finances to their significant other.

The amount of time spent in therapy often depends on how long they’ve been gambling and, if they gamble at casinos, their proximity to the casinos, Soward said.

“Recovery can be tricky, it depends on how motivated they are,” Soward said.

Jeff said if people aren’t entirely sure if they have a problem, they should visit and answer the 20 questions posed on the website.

“The wonderful thing to me about Gamblers Anonymous is it will work for every single person who wants to stop gambling,” he said.

Kim Smith | 547-9740