Caring Currents

Family Financial Feuds: When Mom or Dad Is Gambling Away Financial Security

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I've heard so many variations on this one I could fill a page just with the individual stories. Here on the West Coast, it often involves one of the many freestanding casinos on tribal land, which are all too easily accessible from nearby towns. Or bus trips to Las Vegas or Reno organized by senior groups. A friend in Shreveport tells me her mom couldn't stay away from the riverboat casinos; another friend's dad got in over his head playing Saturday night (and then Friday night, and then Wednesday afternoon) poker. And it isn't just our parents; I recently listened as a group of people shared stories of family members -- often brothers, nephews, cousins -- who got sucked into online gambling.

You've heard the rationale before: "I just play the penny slots. What's wrong with that?" "I've played poker for years; you want me to stop now?" And the kicker: "I have so few sources of enjoyment left. I go with my friends. We have a good time. Would you begrudge me a little fun?"

So what's wrong with a little gambling fun?
Nothing, if that's what it is - a little fun. (Unless it's illegal or you're morally opposed, and that's a question of personal values.)

But gambling can be addictive, and like any addiction, it can cause people to lose their better judgment. They end up making decisions in the moment that can have long-term consequences that hurt not only them but also family members and friends who then have to step in when they get into trouble.

Here's how the National Council on Problem Gambling defines a gambling addiction:
"¢ gambling that causes disruptions in any major area of life: psychological, physical, social, or vocational.
"¢ a progressive condition that can increase over time to compulsive gambling.
"¢ an increasing preoccupation with gambling, a need to bet more money more frequently, an insistence on "chasing" losses -- as in, "I'll win it back next time."
"¢ continuing to gamble despite negative consequences, such as not having the money to pay bills, or going into debt.

The thing is, just as with other addictive behaviors, gambling begins to bleed over into the lives of those close to the gambler. It can damage relationships and interfere with other areas of life that he or she used to find meaningful.

And there's a trickier gray area here -- inheritance. Maybe Mom or Dad's spending money that's his or hers to spend -- except the adult children in the family had hoped there'd be something left to inherit. This can cause enormous tension, yet the feelings are difficult to give voice to. What are you going to say: "Dad, please don't spend your savings gambling; there won't be anything left for me?"

So how do you talk about this touchy subject?
You might start by thinking about whether personal circumstances might be contributing to your family member's dependence on gambling. Many women, for example, begin gambling heavily after their husbands die; it can be a coping strategy for overwhelming grief and loneliness. Is she lonely, isolated, or lacking in ways to spend her time? If so, this is something you can talk about, and then try to segue naturally into the gambling. You might try asking her if she's happy with her living situation, or if she feels isolated. Does she have enough of a community, hobbies, a place to go? If gambling trips are her way of filling a void in her life, the two of you together might be able to come up with a better plan.

Is there anyone else who's also concerned?
Depending on how close you are to the person you're concerned about, you may or may not be the best person to tackle this difficult topic. If it's your mom, for example, she may not be able to hear this from you, but could accept help if it were offered by a friend, a pastor, or member of her church. Some experts suggest consulting a counselor, who can help you devise the best approach. If you have siblings and you're all concerned, getting together and discussing the situation is important. But watch out for taking a group approach that could make her feel like you're ganging up on her; sometimes electing one sibling to represent all of you is the best approach.

What's your ultimate responsibility?
The answer to this question varies with the circumstances. If, for example, you're your parent's executor, power of attorney, or both, and are charged with the responsibility of protecting and distributing whatever inheritance is left, you may have legal responsibilities depending on what state you live in. If you have a close relationship with your parents and would end up feeling responsible if get into debt or not have money to live on, that gives you a specific role too.

If, on the other hand, your parent's spending money but the situation's not likely to have long-term legal or personal consequences for you, then your role is less clear. Consulting a social worker, estate attorney, counselor, or other professional might be worthwhile in helping you sort out what's an emotional concern, and what's a legal or practical concern.