Why Problem Gambling is on the Rise Among Elderly Singaporeans

Though Singapore is home to only two casinos, it comes in second worldwide for gambling. And among the many gamblers in Singapore, more than half elderly – highlighting an urgent need for gambling addiction treatment catering to those in our respected aging population.


Why Problem Gambling is on the Rise Among Elderly Singaporeans

According to a study published by the Journals of Gerontology, gambling problems among the elderly could be due in part to the fact that “older adults face later life transitions such as retirement, lack of opportunities to socialize, death of a spouse and friends, and chronic illness, which may lead them to turn to gambling and other behaviors (e.g., drinking) as a distraction from the age-appropriate changes they experience at this time in their lives.”

Gambling: A Staple of Singaporean Life

Gambling addiction is a widespread problem to be sure – in fact, studies show that up to 5.8 per cent of the world’s population struggles with problem gambling. And the problem is especially pronounced in Singapore, where the avenues to gambling are plentiful.

The Singapore Pools outlets draw countless patrons during the weekly 4D draw days – not to mention the Toto and Big Sweep draws. During any soccer or sports season, countless gamblers bet on their favourite teams, hoping to earn some side cash if theirs comes out on top. Even children can be seen joining their parents in games of blackjack and Mahjong every Chinese New Year, sending the message from an early age that gambling is harmless, acceptable and fun. Indeed, gambling in Singapore is somewhat of a cultural norm.

Gambling Holds Major Appeal for Retirees

Despite the newly instituted re-employment age, many Singaporeans are encouraged to take a break from their working lives at the age of 62. And with Singaporean life expectancy currently at 85 years (the third-highest in the world), most elderly Singaporeans end up with plenty of extra time on their hands. Jackpot rooms provide a place where they can comfortably while away the time. Given the extensive operating hours of these rooms, the opportunities for spending time here are virtually endless.

Aside from the heartland clubs, gambling cruises also attract many older patrons. A nominal entry fee (which starts as low as $50) gives guests access to bottomless buffet meals while they try their hands at the games. Customers can cruise overnight, creating the feeling of a mini getaway. Some even bring their families on-board as a cheap family vacation of sorts, allowing them to gamble to their heart’s content while their loved ones enjoy other forms of entertainment like movies, dancing and gaming.

The Older Generation’s Affinity for Jackpot Rooms

While Resort World Sentosa, Marina Bay Sands and online platforms capture the largest percentage of Singaporean gambling, elderly folks prefer to visit community jackpot rooms, where they can enjoy air conditioning, comfortable seating and free refreshments as long as their visit allows.

As our seniors tend to be less tech-savvy and more wary of online scams, they’re less likely to gamble online, and they’re able to skip the $100 levy by passing on the major casinos. Jackpot machines, by contrast, function on an extremely user-friendly interface, making them much more accessible to an analog-minded generation.

For many, the jackpot room has come to hold a special meaning, as it’s become the space in which the bulk of their social lives occur. This added value makes it harder for elders to tear themselves away, even when gambling starts to present problems.

Stepping into a jackpot room and being cordially greeted by ushers and familiar faces offers a sense of acknowledgment and respect: a valuable feeling for older generations who no longer have jobs and may not live with their families. Deep down, everyone craves a sense of belonging – and seniors are no exception.

According to a 2017 exposé by the Straits Times, just 29 jackpot machines at the Tiong Bahru Football Club generate $100,000 daily – and most of that is coming from senior citizens. 

How Slot Machine Addiction is Taking its Toll

The luxury of being in a jackpot room, however, often comes with a staggering price.

The addictiveness of jackpot machines is no mistake: these games are intentionally designed to keep players playing. Audio and visual displays of spinning reels and clanging coins provide a sense of satisfaction. Seeing the symbols fall into place on the screen builds up players’ anticipation and excitement. With each passing game, they feel their break big break is drawing nearer, and each near-miss beckons another turn. Small wins that provide financial incentives and earn accolades from friends reinforce the whole cycle. In this way, what starts as an innocent pastime can quickly turn into a compulsive habit.

Mounting losses also make it harder to walk away – and this is when things start to get really problematic. It’s no secret that gambling odds are in favour of the house. When gamblers start to feel the impact of their losses, but continue playing in an attempt to win them back, they eventually run out of ways to replenish their funds. This is especially true for retirees on fixed incomes, who often end up in inescapable debt.    

Less opportunities to recoup their losses leave seniors even more vulnerable to the effects of problem gambling. And as with any addiction, gambling can become a way to escape from their boredom, loneliness or depression. Gambling may be behind the concerning rise of suicides among our elderly population: the Straits Times reported last year that 129 Singaporeans over the age of 60 committed suicide in 2017 – a record high. Debt accumulated from habitual gambling is thought to be one of the phenomenon’s main causes.

Singapore’s Attempts to Curb Problem Gambling

The Lion City has taken several measures in recent years to mitigate gambling addiction. The Ministry of Home Affairs announced last year that tighter restrictions would be imposed on the permitting process for jackpot clubs. According to a report by Channel News Asia, “clubs will need to prove that they provide a ‘suitably wide range of substantive recreational and social facilities,’ apart from running jackpot or fruit machines, and the quota for such machines will be reduced.” For now, the jackpots remain ubiquitous, with 1,900 machines appearing in clubs across the island, including Woodlands Wellington, Singapore Recreation Club and Tiong Bahru.

For financially vulnerable gamblers, there may be a cap imposed on the number of visits to casinos or gambling sites allowed each month. But as long as gambling is an intrinsic part of Singapore’s economy and culture, gambling addiction shows no signs of slowing.

Signs of Gambling Addiction

The line between social gambling and gambling addiction is a thin and tenuous one. How do you know when it’s time to raise the issue of your elder family member’s gambling problem? Look for the following signs of gambling addiction:

  • Lying in attempt to cover up gambling behaviour
  • Chasing losses
  • Gambling more than they can afford
  • Increasing bet amounts
  • Preoccupation with gambling
  • Irritability and frustration when unable to play
  • Inability to stop gambling

Addiction is far more than a simple matter of willpower, and putting an end to it is never easy. And as populations age in developed countries worldwide, this issue is likely to affect increasing amounts of our elders.

Elders May Have a Harder Time Asking for Help

Free hotlines and gambling addiction rehabilitation centres exist in Singapore to help curb related issues. However, some of the older generations aren’t aware of the available avenues for treatment. The social stigma in our traditional community adds to the shame of addiction, making many who are struggling feel the need to be secretive about their issues. The first step to seeking treatment takes a lot of courage, and they need encouragement in doing so.

While denial is a key aspect of any addiction, and it’s important not to enable this behaviour, it’s also important to help those in your life who want to break the cycle. If someone expresses their desire to get help, keep an open mind and show your support. You can assist them in seeking treatment from a gambling-specialised addiction treatment professional who can help them break free from gambling in a lasting way.

If an elder in your family is falling victim to the gambling industry’s addictive tactics, and you’re unsure of what steps to take, The Cabin Singapore can help. Our compassionate team of addiction specialists can explain your options and help you create a plan for gently and effectively approaching your loved one. We maintain a strict confidentiality policy, so you can rest assured that their privacy will be respected.

For more information, contact us today.