By Margaret H Johnson

Don’t worry folks. This is not an essay on economics. It’s a cry for help for seniors. A recent Vancouver Sun article about how the majority of Canadians need CPP or a lottery win for retirement reminded me about how desperate the financial struggle of the elderly really is.

As I walked through the casino to meet a colleague on Tuesday, I was shocked to see how many seniors were sitting in front of slot machines – placing their bets, inserting their tokens, and hoping for a big win. This observation simply confirmed the sad image that our seniors are so desperate they need a big win from a lottery or a casino to make it through retirement.

We hear stories about how gambling is entertainment for seniors who would otherwise be shut in their homes with no other contact with the outside world. This vision is normally spun by the casinos and bingo halls. Let’s help the seniors of our society by giving them a chance to lose whatever is left of their retirement income after they pay rent, utilities, buy a little food, and pay for their medications.

It has been estimated that 68% of Canadian seniors gamble. Why do they gamble? Are they having fun? Are they winning or losing? We know the answer about winning or losing. The odds are heavily stacked up against anyone winning. Are they gambling to supplement retirement income?

Funny how the breakthrough in medical science that allows people to live longer has created a tremendous growing market of an aging population for casinos and establishments that solicit the elderly for their gambling dollars.

According to reliable sources, seniors gamble for a variety of reasons – for curiosity, to escape from loneliness, depression, financial difficulties, declining health or emotional losses like a loved one. The most common gambling activities among older adults include lotteries, scratch tickets, video lottery terminals, slot machines and bingo.

In the background of the deafening applause for the virtues of gambling for seniors, there are many reasons why seniors are desperate. For example I would like to know what percentage had their retirement pensions wiped out in the credit crunch of 2007-08 with a fallout that continues to today? What about the victims of Ponzi schemes like Earl Jones or the recent one before the security commission in Victoria?

Another silent topic is why seniors need more money – or cannot survive on their pension incomes? How about inflation and taxation? The cost of medications and housing?  I would love to know – statistically, how many seniors actually gamble for fun – and how many are desperate for a big win to fix their financial shortages?

Recent reports suggest that more and more seniors are going into bankruptcy. According to one such report, the rate of bankruptcy among seniors is 15%.

It would be nice to know how many seniors who file for bankruptcy or gamble (or both) have a company pension and how many do not?

It also would be nice to know why seniors are going deeper and deeper into debt. Is it because they do not have enough to live on? Is it health related? Are they looking after their adult children who cannot find employment?

In 2010 the federal government began to alter the CPP payments, especially with regards to early retirement. Inch by inch, policy change by policy change, the sanctity of Freedom 55 has been chiseled away. Freedom 55 is rapidly being upgraded to Freedom 65 or 70.

The other reality for retirees has been debt. Many retire with access to huge amounts of credit. Others already have troublesome debt loads.

In a 2009 study by Statistics Canada it was revealed that 34% of retired individuals aged 55 and over, whether single or married, held mortgage or consumer debt. The median amount owed by these individuals was $19,000.

Debt loads were much higher among those in the same age group who had not yet retired. Among pre-retirees aged 55 and over, two-thirds held mortgage or consumer debt and their median debt load was $40,000, double that of retirees.

Among retired people with debt:

25% owed less than $5,000

32% owed between $5,000 and $24,999

26% owed between $25,000 and $99,999

17% owed $100,000 or more.

Divorced people (43%) who were retired had the highest incidence of debt. They were followed by people in a couple (35%), those who never married (30%) and widows or widowers (28%).

It looks to me that there is much more to the financial struggles of seniors than gambling for fun or entertainment. We need more thorough reliable and valid research – and we should try to find solutions other than a costly bankruptcy for them.

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