NEWTON — My grandpa’s second wife passed away last winter, and our family was surprised to hear rumors this fall that he already had a new special lady in his life. Although he calls her his "friend" and encourages us to refer to her as his "companion," it is clear they are dating. Their coming out as a couple seemed quietâ€”a shared pastrami sandwich in the back of his Buick while my aunt chauffeuredâ€”but caused a stir worthy of something much more scandalous. The gossip spread through our family. One generation (his kids) disapproved, while the next (grandkids) were simply amused and surprised.
My grandpa is not the only one looking for another chance at love. Elders across the U.S. are finding love late in life and paving the way for aging daters in generations to come. Setting out to examine the dating scene in the 65+ crowd, Blast visited local retirement homes, interviewed an online dating expert, and asked family, friends and complete strangers what they thought about elderly dating.
Senior citizens are dating for many reasons, and it has only recently become so easy â€” older folks in America have more interaction with their peers than ever before. With baby boomers close to retirement and communities made up of record-setting numbers of senior citizens, the elderly’s concerns are being addressed by American society. One growing industry is retirement communities, which offer a vibrant social scene for seniors.
With an age group concentrated in one place â€” residents sleep, eat, exercise, and socialize under the same roof â€” retirement homes are like college campuses, or as one woman told me, living there is like being on an endless cruise. They often have elaborate dinner dances and cafeterias that are modeled after restaurants. So in these communities, even if residents stay inside their homes, they are interacting with people their age. There’s no lack of available singles: Elana Kieffer, who works at NewBridge on the Charles, in Dedham, estimates the married to widowed ratio is about 50/50.
Many retirement communities are classy and luxurious. If community gardens, bocce courts, and the gym aren’t exciting enough to spur interaction, resident-led clubs provide another opportunity. Book clubs, bridge, and mahjong are all great ways to meet other elders. When I asked one woman whether she knew any gossip, she replied matter of factly, "No, because I don’t play bridge."
In these communities, even if residents stay in for the night, they are interacting with peers. I visited Linden Ponds in Hingham on a Thursday night, and dined in the largest restaurant on campus, which was completely full at 6 p.m. Residents sat in couples or groups, and most often in groups of couples. Eating partnerships are a big deal and define relationships. Jenny’s* friends told me she has a boyfriend, but when I asked about him she explained that her husband died 20 years ago and said, "I’m not a twosome anymore."
"What about you and Gill?" her friend prodded.
"Not this week! Usually on Thursdays we have supper together, but he didn’t call."
Margaret, a 93-year-old woman who is almost completely deaf, has a companion named Don. Although she can read lips very well, Margaret didn’t seem to understand what I meant when I asked if she had a boyfriend. Jennie tried to help me out, enunciating the question, "What is your friend’s name?"
"Which one is that?" Margaret asked.
"The one that has supper with you occasionally."
"You mean a man?" Margaret nodded, and spelled his name for me, but waved her hand, signaling that she wasn’t going to divulge any details.
At 6:45 p.m. everyone finished their decaf coffee and dessert and rushed out to get seats for a concert that was being held in the theater downstairs. There was a bit of chaos and a few walker jams. I chatted with the few groups of people who were playing games instead of attending the concert. A woman named Irene was hunched over a jigsaw puzzle while her boyfriend, Bill, watched. When I introduced myself and asked whether they were a couple, they refused to answer; Irene said she had laryngitis and couldn’t talk, and Bill was stern and protective.
Luckily, I caught up with a group of people playing canasta behind them who gave me the scoop. They said Irene spends hours doing puzzles. At first, Bill would just sit and watch her. Then one day he brought her flowers, and eventually they started going dancing together and were a couple. Although they each still have their own apartment, one of the canasta players said, "He’s roaming around in shorts at night, she’s holding his hand. He just lost his wife!"
In addition to the community atmosphere that retirement communities provide, technology has vastly widened the possibilities for elderly singles everywhere. With online dating being such a new medium, there is still room to grow. Increasingly, dating sites are popping up that specialize in an older crowd. Erika Moore, an online dating specialist, says, "People still want to connect no matter what age they are." Though Moore says many older people are overwhelmed by the skills needed to create a dating profile, she suggests enlisting a younger friend or grandchild to help, and says it is a fun and rewarding project. She tells seniors to put up a flattering, recent photo. However, she also said that since most people lie about their age, it is okay to fib by five years or so in order to even the playing field.
On Match.com, as you build your ideal date, you can specify your partner’s body type, whether they have kids still living at home, and the exact age range. Behind the computer screen, most senior citizens see themselves as "slightly overweight" but are looking for partners with "athletic" body types. Even within the 65+ age group, singles online confirm common stereotypesâ€”most women are looking for rich men and most men are looking for younger women. When I was chatting with Jennie and her friends, I told them about my grandfather and his younger girlfriend. "She’s in her 60s and he’s 85?" Joe said. "That’s nothing, at this age it doesn’t mean much."
"But it might mean something to the family!" his wife, Marilyn, said.
Some single seniors are set up by their children. My boyfriend’s grandfather reluctantly agreed to a blind date his youngest son arranged. The plan was to pick his date up and go out for coffee at the local senior center. He didn’t intend to sit at the same table as his date, since the men tend to sit together, the women sit together, and there is a "couples" table that he wasn’t yet ready for. He rang the doorbell and was a bit relieved when nobody answered. He left, got coffee on his own, and tried the doorbell one more time on his way home. When "the old bag" came to the door at his second attempt, they took one look at each other and agreed to call the whole thing off.
As is true with younger singles, there are major differences between how men and women approach dating. Although many elderly women are dating, often there isn’t the same urgency as with older men.
John Cassidy, a 68-year-old who has been married three times, said it was love at first sight when he met his current wife. "I wasn’t looking for love, but she was the best thing that ever happened to me." His tone changed, however, when he spoke about his mother who recently died at the age of 97. When asked whether she dated after his father passed away, Cassidy was appalled. "Noâ€”she lost her best buddy."
In the 2000 Council of Aging study, 18% of elderly men and as many as 23% of women complained of loneliness. "Elderly women whose husbands died, they were the loves of their lives," Kieffer said. "They’re not dating. Their attitude is, it’s time to move on, live my life alone. Plenty of men in that generation don’t know how to take care of themselves. It’s a hell of a lot easier [for men]. There’s a widowers’ club. There’s so many more widows." A 2007-2008 census report confirms this, showing that while there are as many men as women between the ages of 25 and 35, among people 85 or older, women make up two-thirds of the age group.
Jennie said when she was at the dining room the other night, she ran into a married man named George. "He says to me, ‘You’re getting younger every day.’ I thought that was a compliment."
"He was putting a hit on you, wasn’t he?" her friend said.
"Boy, he’s on the prowl," another friend chimed in.
They said men are a precious few at Linden Ponds, and when a new widower moves in everyone places bets to see how long he will stay "free." Jennie had a different perspective than Kieffer. She said, "Of the three women that I had dinner with last night, two of them, they had asked each other, â€˜have you found anyone yet?’ They’re always after the men, the poor men."
And what about sex? Viagra certainly changes the game. A 2008 article in London’s Sunday Times claims three-quarters of respondents of a survey agree with the statement, "sex does not become boring as you age." Additionally, the article points out that among people 65 and older, sexually transmitted infections have tripled in the past six years.
Although grandparents having sex is not something the people I met talked about, it is a subject that is becoming less taboo in pop culture. A recent episode of “Grey’s Anatomy,” for example, featured an elderly man getting a penile implant to cure his erectile dysfunction.
While the elderly have a reputation for being opposed to change, in the case of older folks dating, it is the younger generation that is uncomfortable with the idea. All of the elderly people I met said they avoided telling their families that they were dating. Forget about the complications of a child whose parents get divorced and move on in other relationshipsâ€”we are now seeing our parents and grandparents dating after 50 years of marriage.
Elana Kieffer’s grandmother started dating less than a year after her husband died. It isn’t easy for families to accept the fact that their parents and grandparents are dating so soon after the loss of a loved one, but the simple fact is they don’t have much time to waste. Kieffer’s grandmother met her boyfriend at a grieving group, and her family didn’t support the relationship. Not only did her kids feel she betrayed their father by dating someone else, but they were hurt by the fact that she was spending all her time with her new boyfriend. "It was pretty traumatic, she was like a teenager in love," Kieffer said. "But when she got cancer he was with her every step of the way."
Marilyn at Linden Ponds told me about a man who moved into her building with his wife. "His wife died, and within two months he was with going with another gal and he ended up marrying her. A few months later, she died, and now he’s going with somebody else!" she said.
One man’s wife knew she was dying so she picked two women for her husband to choose from for a companion when she was gone. After she passed away he started dating one of the women she had pre-approved, and now they are constantly seen around Linden Ponds walking arm and arm. As Joe told me, "Love is in bloom here.”
My grandpa knows we’ve all been talking, and he recently emailed me about his love life. They seem to be getting serious; since she is rather soft-spoken he had his hearing aids adjusted in order to improve communication. He wrote to me: "My new lady may or may not be in my lifeâ€”I’m not at all sure at this stage of the game. There is quite a disparity in our ages and we are having our difficulties — I admit that I do like her." A week later, things seemed to have progressed. "My friend Barbara and I are enjoying each other most of the time and having misunderstandings part of the timeâ€”usually instigated by my actionsâ€”but I do like her a lot and hope you meet her soon."