By Ellen McCarthy
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 19, 2009
A few weeks ago Pepper Schwartz, a sociologist who studies relationships at the University of Washington, spent the day giving a friend a crash course in online dating. Never mind that the friend in question is an 80-year-old woman -- she wants "what every girl wants," Schwartz says, "love, compatibility, someone to experience life with."
And with a few clicks, Schwartz's octogenarian pal joined the legions of seniors turning to their computers for a second (or third or fifth or 25th) shot at romance. By 2007, the over-50 set had become the fastest-growing group of subscribers for online dating companies, and double-digit growth has continued since, according to industry watchers.
"They're seeing their sons and daughters use online dating and have success with it," explains Joe Tracy, editor of Online Dating Magazine. "And we've been seeing online dating services really target the senior citizens and baby-boomer market."
Schwartz, an adviser to online dating company Perfectmatch.com, cheers the trend. If a person in their 60s or 70s lost a spouse 20 years ago, "the chances of pairing again were small," she says, because the avenues to meet new people were limited mostly to churches, senior centers and friends of friends.
Today single seniors can go online and "be opened up to literally thousands of options," she says.
Susan Paisner has been. And the 59-year-old editor, who was widowed in 2007, has all the online dating adventures and misadventures to prove it. There are the surprising solicitations from much younger men, the dates who turn out to look nothing like their profile pictures, the guy who threw a tantrum in the middle of the street on New Year's Eve.
"It's become absolutely fascinating -- it's a never-ending supply of fabulous stories," says Paisner of Rockville. Despite some strange experiences, she still considers it an "unbelievable opportunity."
Paisner isn't looking to get remarried -- at least not right away -- but she likes people and great conversation and having company as she finds fun in the city. Even when she travels abroad, she'll sometimes go online beforehand to see if there's someone interesting there who might join her at a museum or a restaurant.
It all seemed bizarre to her at first, but one question fueled her motivation: How else was she going to meet people?
Linda Wertlieb did have marriage in mind when she signed up for JDate.com, a site for Jewish singles, in 2005. She was 13 when she began dating her first husband, who struggled with ALS disease before dying when she was 61. Wertlieb wasn't sure how to go about dating, but one of her three daughters and a few friends had had some success online, so she decided to try it.
"I just figured, 'Well, I'll see what this is all about,' and had a friend help me write a profile," recalls Wertlieb, now 67. "I was very honest -- I wanted to meet someone to marry and spend the rest of my life with."
The Potomac woman went on a few so-so dates and then, against her daughter's advice, started communicating with a man whose profile didn't have a picture. Turns out Alan Deresh wasn't ashamed of his looks -- he just didn't like the idea of business associates seeing his picture on a dating site.
The two met in January 2006 and married that October. They discovered that they lived just five minutes apart and had friends in common who might never have thought to set them up.
"We both feel very blessed and lucky," says Wertlieb, whose daughter married a man she met online the following year.
Nataki Clarke, directing of marketing for AARP's Web site, says two of the most viewed items ever posted on the site were an article about how to get started in online dating, and a tool that helped members build online dating profiles. "Anything with dating, relationships, sex -- that content does really well with this audience," says Clarke, who helped build a new version of AARP's site that acts like a Facebook for seniors, to facilitate more interaction among members. "They're really hungry for this information."
That's because, Schwartz says, the desire for companionship doesn't decrease with age: "Neither love, nor romance, nor adventure are the private property of the young."
There are pitfalls, of course. Safety is always an issue with online dating, and so is disappointment. Just like their younger counterparts, seniors who log on to find love are also risking heartbreak. "The downside," Schwartz says, "is when you meet someone you think is wonderful, but they don't think you are. You've gotta be resilient."
And about that 80-year-old friend of hers? She had a coffee date lined up by the end of her first day online.