The casino industry in America has caught the attention of many women and men 60 and older, offering them an inexpensive social experience that is convenient, comfortable and safe. In addition to air-conditioned coach bus rides, abundant buffet meals, friendly staff and scenic locations, casinos offer older consumers wheelchairs and walkers-and as if that wasn’t enough, some casinos will even provide oxygen refills as a life-support amenity. Casinos also have brilliant marketing campaigns that promote the winning promise of “free” food, gifts and hotel nights. But, as the seniors soon find out, nothing is really free.

Buses leave from shopping centers, roadsides, diners, park-and-ride sites, nursing homes and senior day care programs bound for casinos every day of the week. Regardless of the weather-snow, ice, sleet, rain, hurricane or tornado-buses headed for casinos are usually filled to capacity. For many seniors, the ride to the casino is the most enjoyable social experience they have each month. It is not unusual for regular passengers to become friends who enjoy each other’s company and look out for each other and the people who take care of them.

Case in point: On a recent bus ride to a casino, passengers were informed that the wife of their regular driver had died unexpectedly. The passengers took up a collection to help their driver and collected $600 to help him with his funeral expenses. However, before they gave the substitute driver the money, they called the dispatcher told him about the $600 and asked if they should get a money order or was it safe to give the substitute driver the cash. I was on that bus as part of my research and I made a donation.

Every month, like clockwork, a day or two before Social Security and government pension checks are deposited in the bank, well crafted “giveaway” promotions arrive in the mailboxes of targeted seniors, especially those whose profile is on casino mailing lists. The marketing approach is imaginative, appealing and tempting, pushing incentives such as a “free” room at the casino for spending the day. The hidden charge is the amount of money lost in the casino during previous visits.

These promotions are part of what are called rewards points programs, in which points corresponding to a percentage of the money spent are given to the consumer. Although it’s actually a small give-back, it is designed to appear as a huge promotional give-back to the casino’s loyal customers. As a result of the esteem associated with these give-backs, most customers are devoted to one casino and may visit it exclusively.

Because of the increased demand for bus transportation just after retirees receive their monthly Social Security or other government checks, those without reservations may be left at the curb. However, some casinos and bus companies arrange to have buses in reserve that are speedily dispatched to pick up the overflow crowd.

Although the ride to the casino is full of chatter, friendship and welcoming newcomers, this is strictly reserved for the bus. Spouses, relatives and close friends seldom remain together once they dart out of the door to the casino.

An overwhelming majority play the slot machines or bingo. Their attention is fully devoted to the game they have chosen. In fact, they consider this their solo entertainment. Often, these customers describe playing the slots as a mindless, no need to think way to have fun and hope. They do not want anyone talking to them, distracting them from the relationship they have with the slot machine. In short order, the so-called “free gift” or anything else called free becomes a costly item, paid for by repeated losses interspersed with small winnings to keep up hope and postpone despair.

Some seniors have gambling addictions-when they lose every dollar they have brought and intended to spend, they dig into their savings at the ATM and continue to bet. Many other seniors stick to their budgets, enjoying the buffets, taking walks outside the casino, sitting in comfort and waiting for the bus to take them home. The latter group-and it is believed to be a significant one-have restraint and do not become addicted gamblers.

Because many aging casino visitors are retirees and enjoy the social networking on the bus and the security provided by the casinos’ extensive camera systems, it is not unusual for some seniors to take the bus to the casino two or three times per week, quickly depleting the cash they had earmarked for necessities. Many of these seniors live alone in unsafe neighborhoods, far from their children, and they feel lonely. They are thus easy prey for aggressive casino marketing. If they have a sizable win, they become hooked, with casino addiction serving as a prelude to gambling addiction.

Seniors without healthy relationships and social outlets to occupy their time find casinos appealing. There are no alternative activities that target them as aggressively as casinos do. When they lose the money they had set aside for necessities at the casino, they become ashamed to let relatives, especially grown children, know what has happened, often becoming withdrawn and depressed. This can lead to previously sober patrons drinking the free alcohol provided at the casino, and relatively quickly become alcoholics. If they have ailments requiring medication, the mixture of alcohol and prescription or OTC drugs can be a deadly combination.

All too frequently, professionals as well as relatives fail to ask older people the questions that would reveal the nature of their problems. Instead, they are likely to attribute signs of depression, loss of social connections, weight loss, onset of negative behavior and other symptoms as “normal aging conditions.” The lack of therapeutic interventions in a timely manner can contribute to suicide, alcoholism, depletion of retirement assets and unnecessary poverty, with physical, mental and spiritual illnesses.

Older people with substance abuse problems are not likely to seek treatment. They are often too ashamed to admit they have a problem “at their age.” They may have the same kind of response to gambling addiction, depression and incomplete suicides. When you observe unusual behavior among older people who appear to be neglecting themselves, borrowing money from friends and relatives, using local and state “safety net” institutions and resources when they are receiving Social Security, pension checks and other types of income, it could be time to make plans for an intervention by a professional therapist.

Dr. Frances L. Brisbane is professor and dean of the School of Social Welfare at the State University of New York at Stony Brook. She is dean of the Black Alcoholism and Addictions Institute, co-sponsored by the National Black Alcoholism and Addictions Council in Washington, D.C., and the Morehouse Research Institute at Morehouse College in Atlanta.