The dating game's senior circuit

The rules have changed, seniors discover, as they seek out new companions

October 15, 2006|By Julie Scharper | Julie Scharper,Sun reporter

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 last week in Timonium, 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," Towson University gerontology professor Donna Wagner 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 fewer than 15 percent of men, according to the census.

"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 over 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. 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 sixties 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 sixties.

"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.

Women say that frustration over the lack of available men is compounded because 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.

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