Commentary: The irresistible lure of the jackpot room and problem gambling among the elderly

Commentary: The irresistible lure of the jackpot room and problem gambling among the elderly

The thrill, excitement and hopes of striking the jackpot as symbols on the slot machine line up can be addictive, especially to elderly gamblers, argues Mythily Subramaniam.

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Jackpot machines in a club.

SINGAPORE: The recent move by the Ministry of Home Affairs to tighten restrictions on clubs operating jackpot rooms has resulted in wide-ranging public discussions about the pros and cons of these new regulations.

These regulations include raising the minimum age for access, restricting access for guests and short-term members of these clubs to the jackpot room, and reducing the quota of jackpot machines, among many other measures – all with the intent of “protecting people from the potential harms of gambling”.

But are such jackpot rooms so enticing that people require protecting? And who are these people that require protecting?


Research tells us that of all forms of gambling, the jackpot machine is one of the most addictive. Packaged into this sort of gambling are an array of powerful nudges.

For many, it is the simplicity of the game that makes it so accessible and enticing. Knowing the outcome from a pull of the jackpot machine arm almost immediately gives the player instant gratification. As the symbols of the machine fall into place, excitement and anticipation builds up.

The visual and auditory fanfare of flashing lights and jangling music that signal a win have also been reported as being particularly exhilarating for gamblers. 

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File photo of a jackpot machine.

The ability to bet with small amounts of money also makes individual losses less painful and prohibitive, while small intermittent wins maintain one’s hope of striking the jackpot.


Gambling is usually described as a wagering of money or something of material value on an event with an uncertain outcome, with the primary intent of winning additional money or material goods.

While it is a pleasurable recreational diversion for most people, gambling can have dire consequences for those who indulge excessively in it. Harm caused by excessive gambling includes ruinous financial losses, loss of a job, significant damage to a relationship or educational opportunity, and emotional distress.

Described variously as problem gambling or pathological gambling, this form of a gambling addiction persists even in the face of appalling damages to the individual’s personal, professional or family life, and is classified in the field of mental health as a disorder.

The occurrence of problem gambling can be significant, although there are variations in problem gambling rates across different countries in the world. Studies over the past year show that between 0.12 per cent and 5.8 per cent of populations suffer from problem gambling.


The number of elderly aged 60 years and above has increased in recent years across the world, and this number is projected to further increase in the future, with an ageing population in most developed countries.

With the advent of medical advances and greater affluence, these elderly folks are not only living longer but are also ageing actively and engaging in various activities including gambling.

Visitors trying out gambling machines during a trade exhibition in Manila, Philippines. (File photo: AFP/Romeo Gacad)

Indeed, research has shown that gambling is a popular social activity among older adults across many cultures. In Singapore, lotteries, mahjong and jackpot machines seem to be especially popular. Local studies show that about half of elderly Singaporeans have gambled at least once in their lifetime.   

In a study conducted by my colleagues and me, we found that the hope of winning money was a significant motivator for many older adults who gamble. This desire to win money was deeply associated with the hope of turning around their lives or realising long-held dreams, with the money they dream of winning from gambling.

Besides winning money, the elderly also associate gambling with socialisation and in building a sense of belonging including membership in a gambling sub-culture. Gambling with friends or gambling to widen one’s social circle was an often cited attraction of gambling.

Many older adults also perceive gambling as a fun, entertaining activity to be enjoyed with friends and family members. Older women who played mahjong in particular would cite that their main intent was to socialise with friends and bond, and less so to win money.

China nursing home
Elderly women playing mahjong at a nursing home in Beijing. (Photo: AFP/Greg Baker)

For some, however, gambling has been a means to escape from the travails of everyday life and difficult relationships: A way of getting away from home, and a strategy to cope with poor moods and filling perceived voids in their lives.

The elderly are not often identified as a group that gambles excessively, but these individuals are generally at a stage of life where they have fixed incomes and limited prospects of future income. They are therefore especially vulnerable to suffer more grievous financial losses stemming from persistent gambling.

Elderly gamblers may feel reluctant to seek help because of a lack of awareness of how to go about seeking help, or because they may be ashamed to do so.

Loss of face associated with acknowledging their problem gambling to loved ones or treatment providers appears to be particularly potent and has been cited as a top reason why active gamblers in Singapore don’t seek help, according to a 2014 survey.


The undesirable social and financial consequence of excessive and unbridled gambling is, of course, well known.

A number of governments worldwide, including Singapore’s, have developed and implemented a raft of legislative initiatives, policies and practices designed to reduce and prevent potential negative consequences associated with gambling – to encourage what is generally known as “responsible gambling”.  

Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam
Minister for Home Affairs K Shanmugam (second from left) addressing reporters on the changes to jackpot machine operations. (Photo: Aqil Haziq Mahmud)

These measures include regulations that limit the advertisement of gambling venues, restrict gambling venues to certain locales, ban under-age gambling, and exclude from casinos people with problem or pathological gambling.

Such regulations aim to prevent a recreational activity from devolving into one that causes harm to gamblers and arrest the onset of problem gambling.

Yet, there is a limit to what regulations that are put in place can do. For all these measures, it ultimately falls on those who gamble to practise responsible gambling.

So gamblers should consider setting time and monetary limits on their gambling. They should be aware of the harms of excessive gambling and monitor themselves. They should also strive to maintain a balance between gambling and other social or physical activities, and seek help early if they suspect they have a problem.

Ultimately, when those who gamble practise responsible gambling, they can then ensure that gambling remains an entertaining and enjoyable activity without harming either themselves or their families.

Mythily Subramaniam is Adjunct Associate Professor at the Saw Swee Hock School of Public Health and director at the Institute of Mental Health’s research division. Her research interests includes gambling among older adults. She also urges families who need support and advice for their loved ones who may be facing gambling issues to contact the National Problem Gambling Helpline at 1800-6668-668 or the All Addictions Helpline at 6-RECOVER or 6-7326837.

Source: CNA/sl