PLAINVILLE — Seniors are among the most loyal customers of casinos. But with limited income, fewer social outlets, and plenty of time on their hands, some older people may also be especially vulnerable to the harmful effects of problem gambling.
A state-funded study will seek to gauge the impact of casinos, a relatively recent feature of the Massachusetts landscape, on older residents living nearby. The research is part of a larger effort to track the social and economic effects of gambling in the state, required by lawmakers when they legalized casino gaming in 2011.
The study will focus on the area near the Plainridge Park Casino, which opened in June 2015 as the state’s first commercial gaming establishment. A sprawling gambling parlor with 1,500 slot and blackjack machines, it rang up record monthly revenue of $15.9 million in March.
Researchers from the Gerontology Institute at the University of Massachusetts Boston, working with the nonprofit Massachusetts Council on Compulsive Gambling, plan to survey senior citizens in 15 cities and towns surrounding the casino about their experiences with it.
“We want to understand the impact of these casinos on the behavior and lifestyle of older residents,” said Caitlin Coyle, a UMass Boston research fellow and co-director of the study. “We know there are risks posed by problem gambling. This is an opportunity for us to ask questions and get answers.”
The study’s findings could influence public policy at a time when Plainridge Park’s owner, Penn National Gaming, is seeking to add table games, such as blackjack and craps.
They could also have broader implications as the commercial gaming industry expands in Massachusetts. Wynn Resort Casinos is preparing to launch the first Boston-area casino, Encore Boston Harbor, in Everett in the coming weeks. MGM opened the state’s first Las Vegas-style resort casino in Springfield last August.
Seniors make up a large share of customers — some studies say close to half — at casinos across the country, from Reno to Atlantic City. Casinos often market directly to “elder elites” through loyalty programs, offering free drinks, preferred restaurant seating, and discounted room rates at hotels.
Many older folks see trips to casinos as harmless outings. Some senior centers in Massachusetts have long run bus trips to the Foxwoods Resort and Mohegan Sun casinos in Connecticut. Now that Plainridge Park has opened, it’s become a closer option for many residents.
At the Plainville Senior Center, less than three miles away from Plainridge Park, some attending a breakfast last week talked about the casino’s appeal — or lack of it.
“Every once in a while I have an urge to go,” said Tony Arigo, 79, a Mansfield resident in a black cowboy hat who often visits Plainridge Park. “I like the atmosphere. I’ll spend an hour and a half, as long as my money lasts. It gets the adrenaline running.”
Ann Sandberg, 84, of Plainville, has been to Plainridge Park only twice. “I’m not a gambler. I take $20,” she said. “When it’s gone, I go home.”
But for a segment of the population, gambling can become addictive. A baseline survey by the University of Massachusetts Amherst in 2013 and 2014, before Plainridge Park opened, estimated that 2 percent of adults in the state were problem gamblers and another 8.4 percent were at risk for developing a gambling problem. The survey didn’t break out findings for older residents.
The new study’s team, led by Coyle and co-director Phil Kopel at the compulsive gambling council, has received a $40,000 seed grant from the Massachusetts Gaming Commission. That money will enable them to design the study and distribute senior surveys through councils on aging in the communities surrounding Plainridge Park. Then they’ll seek a larger grant to underwrite a deep dive into how Southeastern Massachusetts seniors relate to the casino.
In a report in December, part of an ongoing long-term study of the broader population, UMass Amherst researchers found no significant changes in the prevalence of problem gambling across the state or in the area around Plainridge Park.
By narrowing the focus of the new study to older residents, researchers want to look at how other common medical or mental health problems in that population — such as chronic illnesses, depression, and alcohol or drug abuse — could put people at higher risk of gambling addiction, said Marlene Warner, executive director of the compulsive gambling council.
Depleting savings can have more serious consequences for older gamblers than their younger counterparts, Warner said.
“When seniors have a gambling problem and they lose money, they’re not as able to recover,” she said. “It’s harder for many of them to go out and find new sources of income.”
Warner said her council is hoping to learn how to better reach out to seniors struggling with compulsive gambling. Many men start gambling earlier and take longer to acknowledge they have a problem, she said, while women tend to start later but ask for help sooner.
Some older men and women see gambling as a respite from loneliness and isolation, she said. “If you’re going to a casino, you’re surrounded by people,” she said. “There’s stimulation.”
Locals regard Plainridge Park as more of a convenience than a destination casino, with fewer dining and entertainment options. A majority of customers on a recent Friday were older adults — more women than men — and some leaned on canes or walkers.
While signs read “Welcome to your Hometown Casino,” several customers said they came from farther afield — Walpole, Fall River, and Amesbury. Some of the cars in the parking garage had Rhode Island, Connecticut, or Maine license plates.
Town officials in the area said they see limited overlap between the casino and their senior centers, which offer activities such as wood carving, barbecues, and Taekwondo. None of the surrounding towns run buses to Plainridge Park, which is within easy driving distance.
“The casino draws a different type of person,” said Liga Cogliano, director of the Plainville Council on Aging, which offers overnight trips to places like York, Maine, and Mackinac Island in Michigan. “We have a whole schedule of social programs, and many of the seniors we see are on fixed incomes. If they’re going to spend their money, they’d rather go on a trip.”
But at the senior center breakfast, many folks said they’d visited Plainridge Park, and some said they go regularly with their spouses, or with friends or relatives in the area.
Sandra Hammond, 84, said her husband doesn’t like to gamble, so she visits Plainridge with her daughter. “I go up quite often, if I can sneak out,” she said, joking.
“We play slots and have lunch,” Hammond said. “I just take what I’m going to spend. And if I spend $100, that’s my entertainment. I would be up there once a week, but my husband doesn’t want me to spend all my money.”
She paused and explained, “When you’re retired, you get bored.”
Arigo, a retired safety consultant who worked on the Big Dig for the engineering company Bechtel, said he visits Plainridge Park about once every month or two — and usually goes by himself because his wife doesn’t care for gambling.
He said he has a strategy to limit his losses: leaving his wallet in the car and taking only the cash he’s willing to part with into the casino.
“I love Plainridge being so close,” Arigo said. “You don’t have to take the long trip down to Foxwoods. I go during the day, during the week. They give you free coffee, free soda. For seniors, everything free is good.”