updated 3/15/2006 6:49:19 PM ET 2006-03-15T23:49:19

Susan Gladstone's moment came when she turned 50. Divorced, with two children, she was getting tired of asking friends to fix her up and being told they just couldn't think of anyone. And so, she turned to online dating.

Two and a half years and dozens of dates later, Gladstone, an event planner in Miami, hasn't yet found her perfect soul mate. But she's had lots of enjoyable dinner dates, met fascinating people from around the globe, and to her delight has made a number of lasting friendships.

Gladstone is part of a growing trend: people in their 50s and beyond searching the Internet for romance, companionship, sometimes marriage. As in any age group, there are ups and downs. There's the old stale-photo trick (it's him, but 20 years and 30 pounds ago), or the date who asks right away how much money you have, or the ones who say how fabulous you are and then disappear. Still, many older online daters say that even if they haven't found true love — yet — it's been worthwhile.

"I had minor back surgery recently," Gladstone says, "and I got about a half-dozen e-mails from men I'd met online, checking up on how I was! Even if I never meet my partner, I'll be happy for the wonderful friends I've made."

The main reason more mature singles are going online for love is simple: more widespread access to the Internet, hence more familiarity with online dating. And dating sites are catering to older members. Yahoo Personals, for example, has an advice column for users over 50, with tips — on everything from etiquette to sexual health — for those whose romantic radar may be a tad rusty.

Another reason: "Baby boomers are seeing their children use online dating, and watching their success at finding mates," says Rochelle Adams, spokesperson for Yahoo Personals. "They're seeing that it's not such a crazy concept."

Match.com, another large online dating site, says boomers (which it defines as ages 45-59) are its fastest growing segment — they’ve increased by at least 350 percent since 2000, and now number 3 million — or 22 percent of total users. Spokesperson Kristin Kelly says older users tend to be much clearer and more realistic about what they want: “There’s no substitute for the wisdom gained with age.”

Claudia Polley certainly knows what she wants. The beauty of online dating, says the 56-year-old museum consultant from Washington, D.C., is that you can tell right away if someone can write well — a key test for her. "If they can't spell, and they start out with 'Hiya!' — well, I wish them a wonderful life, but not with me."

Polley's work takes her around the globe — Africa, Europe, the Caribbean. "It would be wonderful to share that with someone," she says. Aside from intelligence and flexibility, she looks for wit and humor. Physical appearance is less important. (Surprise! Surveys say appearance is more important to male users.)

So far, Polley's had no major disasters. There have, though, been disappointing moments: "You want someone to be fabulous, and they're not." And so, says Polley, who was briefly married, then widowed, "You just have to say, "OK, well, that's all right. We'll keep looking." (For inspiration she has her daughter, who met her husband online. The first grandchild is due in July.)

Rudy DiLieto is one of the rarer ones: At 51, he's never married. "I wish I had an explanation for that," he says. A New Yorker who works in the fashion industry, he figures he simply enjoyed his independence too much over the years. Now, though, he's more inclined for something serious: "I am looking for that one last romance," his profile reads.

"I absolutely adore women," DiLieto confides, and he goes on at least 10 Internet dates a year. A yearlong relationship ended when the woman wanted to get married, and DiLieto wasn't ready yet. Now, he's happily embarking on a new online courtship.

The only downside, DiLieto says, is when people misrepresent themselves — as in the old-photo trick. "Why lie?" he asks. "It's illogical." One woman a few years back told DiLieto that if she'd given her real age and weight, he wouldn't have called her. His answer? "That's correct."

Ask Jeffrey Balash, a 57-year-old private capital investor in Los Angeles, how many online dates he's had and he can't even count — couple hundred is his best estimate. Logging on is a daily habit.

Balash, who's divorced, says a friend described online dating well: "The odds are good, but the goods are odd." At this age, he explains, "you have a lot of people where there's a REASON they're not in relationships." He also bemoans the lack of common courtesy that comes with a medium as anonymous as the Internet. "People can be flaky. They don't call you back, they don't show up for a coffee date." And there's another problem with dating in Los Angeles, Balash finds: an excessive emphasis on material wealth.

But there have been successes, too, like one 9-month relationship that ended, but "we're still great friends." And sometimes, even when a date doesn't work out, the woman will fix him up with one of her girlfriends. "What could be a stronger endorsement than that?" he asks.

Of course, it's all a question of chemistry. The spark you perceived during countless e-mail chats can simply fizzle upon meeting the person in the flesh.

Gladstone has traveled to another city to meet someone, only to feel no connection. Now, she's resolved to take fewer such risks.

And for Balash, there was the moment he suspected his coffee date was a transsexual.

"You could tell from the hands," he said.

Copyright 2006 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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