Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Dating For Seniors

The bell rang, and Dorothy Binder greeted the man taking a seat across from her.

''I want to tell you that I'm very nervous, but I'm here to have a good time today,'' said Binder, a petite redhead in her 80s. ''So, um, what do you like to do?''

''Well, uh, I like to go to restaurants and go to the opera,'' said Clewell Howell, a retired lawyer. The 76-year-old rested his chin on his hand and smiled, his blue eyes warm behind thick glasses.

Around the table at the ''speed-dating'' event in Timonium, Md., other seniors chatted in pairs about hobbies and grandchildren, while nodding and scribbling notes. After three minutes, the bell rang again and the men sat down with different partners, starting a new round of self-conscious conversations.

As people are living longer and changing their ideas about old age, more seniors are dating than ever before, experts say. But many older people find that the rules of the game have changed drastically since the last time they dated, four or five decades ago.

These days, seniors are as likely to meet through online dating services or singles cruises as bingo games. Older women are confidently setting boundaries — such as refusing to cook or clean for a man — even though older single women greatly outnumber older single men. And while bringing protection once meant a purse full of mad money, seniors must now be aware of HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases.

The senior singles scene will only grow as baby boomers — the oldest of whom turned 60 last year — reach their golden years.

''It's going to be a much bigger issue in the future,'' gerontology professor Debbie Wagner, at Towson University in Maryland, said of senior dating. ''Things are more open now and people are able to pursue what they want, and before they would have felt guilty about even thinking about it.''

Tom Walsh, an 80-year-old retired engineer from Rhode Island, said he was overwhelmed by the dating world after his wife of 47 years died six years ago. He said that he discovered that most older women wanted to pay their own way on dates, were not shy about sexuality and were not interested in getting married again.

''I found that it's an entirely whole new arrangement,'' said Walsh, who wrote a book, ''The Senior Dating Scene,'' about his romantic adventures. ''It was dumbfounding. But I got into the swing of things.''

That can be a bigger challenge for women, since the pool of eligible men shrinks drastically later in life. According to the 2000 U.S. Census, there are seven men for every 10 women over age 65. Moreover, because women live longer on average, nearly 45 percent of women over 65 are widowed, compared with less than 15 percent of men, according to the census.

Men as a 'hot commodity'

''Some men who have never been players, in their 70s, in a retirement home, can become players,'' said Wayne Nelson, a Towson University gerontology professor. ''They're a hot commodity.''

Rebecca Sharp Colmer, the author of ''The Senior's Guide to Dating (Again): Traditional and Online,'' has a name for the women who swarm a widower: the casserole ladies.

''If a man's wife dies, then the next day, five or 10 single ladies bring over a casserole,'' said Colmer, who watched hordes of women descend on her widowed father-in-law. ''They don't waste any time saying, 'We'll help you through the grieving process,' if you know what I mean.''

At the speed-dating event, part of the Baltimore County Department of Aging's Senior Expo/Baby Boomer Expo at the state fairgrounds, participants were divided into three age categories: 70-plus, 60-69 and 50-59. However, because so few men in their 60s participated, men in the older group were invited to stay for the younger women. Yet the women in their 60s still outnumbered the male participants, 18 to 10.

Richard Donadio, 73, a retired lawyer from Timonium, mingled with the women in the over-70 group and those in their 60s.

''I hope I don't come off as catty, but most of those women seemed too old for me,'' he said of the older group. A short, trim man who enjoys golf, Donadio said that he wouldn't hesitate to date someone many years his junior.

Frustrations of women

Women say that their frustration over the lack of available men is compounded by the fact that men often pursue younger women.

''It's hard to meet men who are age-appropriate because they're interested in younger women,'' said Doris Sweet, 68, a Glen Arm resident who attended the speed-dating event. ''I think they're not giving us a fair shake.''

Sweet, a tall, attractive woman, is a program manager for Hewlett-Packard, who likes to hike, travel and volunteer. She wore a lace blouse with a plunging neckline.

But Sweet said that she has had little luck in finding a man in the decade since her husband died of a brain tumor, despite placing personal ads in the newspaper and online. Recently, she contracted a professional matchmaker.

Seniors face a number of unique dating challenges, experts say. They may feel out-of-place at bars or dance clubs. Those who are retired may have fewer opportunities to interact with new people. And physical impairments, such as not being able to drive at night, may put a crimp in their social lives.

Yet seniors are finding an increasing number of creative ways to meet new sweethearts. Online dating services can be a secure and nonthreatening way for seniors to meet, said Kristin Kelly, a spokeswoman for match.com, a popular dating site. The number of baby boomers using the Web site has jumped 350 percent since 2000, she said. One of the site's most popular users is a 78-year-old retired physician, and some members are in their 90s, she said.

Other ways to meet

Other seniors meet prospective partners through clubs, volunteer activities or trips. Walsh said that he had attended a singles cruise in Florida. ''That was an eye-opener because of all the shenanigans going on,'' he said.

In Maryland, senior centers hold many events that enable older people to get together, including the popular ''Seniors' Prom.'' On Friday, the Bykota Senior Center in Towson will host a happy hour for single seniors, including beer, wine and live music.

Many senior women are quick to say that although they would like to meet a new friend, they aren't looking for a serious relationship. ''I don't want a situation where he comes over every Sunday and expects me to fix dinner for him,'' said Georgia Peacock, 74. ''I've gotten to the point in life where I can enjoy my own company.''

Peacock, who joined in the speed dating event, said that she has two male friends, one who accompanies her to dances at the VFW and one who takes her on motorcycle rides. But, she said, she prizes her independence: ''The shoes that go under my bed are mine.''

Many older women share Peacock's opinion, said Wagner, the gerontology professor.

''Men in general, the research has shown, do better when they're married,'' she said. ''The women do just fine when they're not married.''

Enough with marriage

Older women often associate marriage with cooking, cleaning and a loss of autonomy, said Dr. Shana Geloo, clinical director of the Institute for Advanced Studies in Aging and Geriatric Medicine in Washington. ''With this population of people, you're looking at people who got married 50 years ago, when gender roles were very different,'' she said.

Moreover, adult children often pressure their mothers not to date. ''Children get upset, especially when their mother is having intimate relations,'' said Towson University gerontology professor Wayne Nelson.

Sexuality among the elderly can be an uncomfortable topic. ''People don't expect or think that their grandmothers are sleeping around or living with someone, but they are,'' Walsh said.

Baltimore County senior centers have held workshops on safe sex.

Many older people, especially those whose children or grandchildren live far away, simply crave being touched, Nelson said. ''When we talk about intimacy at that age, it can range from sexual contact to holding hands or hugging,'' he said.

Craving companionship

Binder, the redhead at the speed-dating event, said that she would be interested in meeting a man just for occasional trips to the theater or opera. She keeps busy painting and exhibiting her artwork, as well as traveling with her children and grandchildren.

Her husband — a friend since childhood, when they surfed on her mother's wooden ironing board — died a few years ago after 60 years of marriage. The Timonium event was the closest that she had come to dating since the 1940s.

Howell's eyes sparkled as he leaned across the table to hear Binder speak. His wife died two years ago after nearly a half-century of marriage. Since then, he has dated a little but would like to find a woman who is interested in marriage.

The pair discussed Binder's artwork, including her favorite painting: a group of whispering little girls in tutus that she titled ''Secrets.''

The bell rang, but Howell lingered in his seat. Binder waved her hand to catch the eye of the event's organizer, then said, ''Excuse me, I don't think you're giving us enough time.''

Julie Scharper is a reporter for The Baltimore Sun, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.
Copyright © 2006, The Morning Call

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