Talking to someone about a problem behavior is never easy. This is especially true when bringing up the topic of problem gambling to older adults.

Often, the responsibility of monitoring a senior’s gambling behavior falls to older children and health care professionals in a position to spot a possible problem. But they may not always know that much about problem gambling or know the best way to discuss the issue.

The apprehension in talking to someone about a problem behavior is not surprising. A Gallup survey found that 94 percent of Americans feel it is their responsibility to speak to a family or friend who has problems with alcohol or drugs. Yet only 38 percent felt very confident and comfortable in speaking up to the person about it.

“There are many messages in society that tell us to keep quiet when we see behaviors that concern us,” says Kevin Spading, LICSW, LADC, CPP. “Our challenge is to help people feel comfortable raising the issue of problem gambling.”

“We need to empower and educate family members and others to have these important conversations with their clients and loved ones,” says Kevin. “They often don’t recognize the symptoms of problem gambling nor know how to start the conversation.” To address this need, a training called It’s Time to Talk Again (ITTA) was created to empower attendees to increase their courage to have difficult conversations.

According to Kevin, who has developed training to help people discuss problem behaviors with older adults, one of the best approaches is to take a big-picture perspective of a senior’s health and to use that as a basis for constructive dialog. The goal of such a conversation is not to talk exclusively about gambling and the signs and symptoms of problem gambling, but rather to discuss general health concerns of seniors. “There are a number of health concerns that should be discussed for this age group that go beyond gambling behavior.”

The ITTA presentations are designed to train professionals on how to help their clients and patients intervene and start a conversation that ultimately helps loved ones get access to the resources they need. “The goal is to invite those working in healthcare capacities, such as nurses, homecare specialists, case managers and social service managers, to consider how they might bring up difficult topics with an older adult.”

The presentations educate participants about the magnitude and severity of gambling problems in older adults and help them understand the unique roles that family members, friends, caregivers and service providers can play in preventing gambling problems. There’s also a focus on protective factors and how to minimize risk factors for gambling problems.

The ITTA training draws upon principles espoused by various resources. One such resource is Mom, Dad … Can We Talk?, a book by Dick Edwards, a retired Mayo Clinic eldercare specialist, that details the importance of discussing the Big Ds—dementia, drinking, depression and driving—with aging parents.

The ITTA training also incorporates the work of Roger Svendsen, Northstar co-founder, whose See It Say It Six-Step Program provides a process to help people talk effectively with a friend or loved one about dangerous or unhealthful behavior. The process takes people through a series of steps including: 1) I care, 2) I see, 3) I feel, 4) I’m listening, 5) I want, and 6) I will. The program emphasizes concern for the relationship and helps people know what to say and how to say it.

People may get emotionally stuck wondering what to say to their parent. “People will say, ‘This is my mother. She used to have these conversations with me! What do I say?’” says Kevin. “It takes emotional courage to have these conversations, but the confidence that comes with familiarity with this tool can help a lot and ultimately get older adults with gambling and other problems the help they need.”

If you’d like more information on how to start a conversation with an older adult or arrange a training presentation, you may contact Kevin Spading at (651) 402-8515 or ks76calif@gmail.com. Kevin teaches in the undergraduate and graduate programs for the alcohol and drug counseling program in the College of Community Studies and Public Affairs at Metropolitan State University.