Casinos: New York's Bleak New Senior Center?

The vote for casino expansion nears and no one has mentioned the risks for senior citizens. New York has long been on the forefront of supporting the vulnerable old, but a vote for casinos will create a bleak new senior center that puts that honorable legacy to shame.

New York boasts the first and longest running senior center in America. When the William Hodson Senior Center first opened in 1943 it had five members and occupied a wooden shed near E. Tremont and Third Aves. Now located in the Bronx, it serves as a neighborhood hub for those over 55 years of age as they adapt to the physical, emotional and relational changes involved in the ageing process. Recreational games, computer classes, affordable meals, and aerobics help increase self-confidence and self-worth.

Like communities across the country, the seniors in the Bronx live on fixed incomes with various chronic difficulties like hearing and vision loss, heart disease and arthritis. Many live alone. Transportation, medication management, and attaining healthy meals present daily challenges.

Rosie Mills serves as Executive Director and expresses passion for connecting seniors to their community, to each other, and to the broader world. Her greatest tragedy lies in seeing people "come from nowhere and move on to nowhere." She wants the senior citizens they serve to be fully "now here." Building on public and private partnerships, she will try anything to live their mission of engaging older persons in the fullest of living by establishing nurturing relationships and a general sense of belonging.

When I ask about casino trips, Mills just shakes her head.

Sadly, most seniors there are like seniors nationally who rank casino gambling as a favorite past-time. In 2012, over 50 percent of those frequenting a casino were over-50. Casinos cater to the needs of seniors with focused reward programs, plenty of wheelchairs and scooters, and even an in-house pharmacy.

Casino ads paint a picture of silver-haired couples nestled at slot machines, cheering for one another, but even a cursory, midweek, midday visit to a casino exposes a much starker picture. On recent visits to Empire Casino and Resorts World Casino, I met isolated seniors tethered to slot machines for hours. To start a conversation, I had to fight over the noise to break into the "machine zone." When asked about why they frequent the casino, the overwhelming response came back, "What else do I have to do?"

As an answer to this very question, New Yorkers took a pioneering risk in 1943 to be the first to invest in senior centers as places of dignity, purpose and life.

As many states, New York included, consider ballot measures that expand casino outlets, we must keep the needs of senior citizens in mind. Does transporting our vulnerable old to the "nowhere" of Casino Land meet the vision of America's first senior center? Do casinos "provide the avenues where older persons can become engaged in the fullest of living by establishing nurturing relationships and a general sense of belonging?"

What will New York's answer be?

Amy Ziettlow is the author of a forthcoming report on seniors and gambling in the Casino Land report series.

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