Older people turn to Internet to find love

Mary Bellis Waller sits in her living room with a pile of letters that various men have written to her after meeting in an on-line chat rooms.Darren Hauck / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Sensuous, intellectual woman, 5'3, adventurous, pretty and open, seeks a life partner who is sexy, highly intelligent and cheerful.  How old is this woman?  In her early 60s.  That's the profile Mary Bellis Waller, now 64, posted on two Internet dating sites during her search for a companion.

Waller was a pioneer of online dating among people her age, and thousands of others age 60 and older are also turning to the Internet to find romance.  They're bringing in some unexpected revenue for online dating sites, which expect business to grow as many baby boomers find themselves single again.

"You don't have to be a beauty queen or a young babe to find interesting people on the Net.  People think that their romantic lives are over because of age, but it has nothing to do with it," said Waller, a psychotherapist in Milwaukee who logged onto chat rooms and then Match.com after her second husband died in 1996.  She's now in a serious relationship with an executive-turned-farmer, but said she met dozens of other interesting men over the Web.

Imatchup.com, an online dating site whose members total 2.5 million, said the number of its users 55 and older is rising as much as 30 percent faster than its total population.  The online site will now be featuring more seniors in ad campaigns starting this fall, according to Stephanie Schwab, marketing director.

Match.com vice president Trish McDermott said, "online dating is as popular for seniors as it is for other age groups."

In August, more than 16 percent of those active on the top five dating sites, including Yahoo! Personals and Match.com, were 55 and over, and more than 5 percent were 65 and over, according to NielsenNetRatings Inc., an Internet research firm.  That's up from 15 percent in the 55-plus category and 4.8 percent in the over-65 group a year earlier.

Overall, the number of people active on top dating sites grew to 22.53 million in August from 22.28 million a year ago.

Overcoming technophobia
Observers say one of the main obstacles in online dating for people 60 and older was overcoming their technophobia, but that seems to be fading as more people use computers and the Internet.  Of the nearly 148 million people active online in August, nearly 20 percent were over 55 and more than 7 percent over 65, according to Nielsen/NetRatings.

"Seniors are the fastest-growing online demographic overall," said Kaizad Gotla, an analyst at Nielsen/NetRatings.  "It has been a challenge in the past, but they are becoming more comfortable adopting to the Internet. It really has become a necessity."

Chet Bayliss, 77, whose first wife died 25 years ago, said he "learned to be Internet savvy to get on Match.com" at the encouragement of his son, who wanted him to find romance again.  It took him just a few weeks to learn to e-mail and surf the Web, he said.

Finding a wife "was a kind of motivator," said the Laguna Woods, Calif., resident.

He did find one, meeting Janice Stromme, now 66, in May 2003.  They married three months later.

"I had never thought I would get married again.  I pretty much had given up," he said.

Online dating sites could do even more to make seniors feel more comfortable by "offering more hand-holding or step-by-step assistance,and perhaps even offer coaching to help them register, use e-mail and write catchy personal ads," said Andrea Orr, author of "Meeting, Mating (... and Cheating): Sex, Love and the New World of Online Dating."

An online video service called Attractone.com is trying to do that, launching a service for seniors that will bring Web cams into senior centers so they can meet, according to Richard Braun, founder and chief executive.  The company is starting with three centers — one in Washington state, and three others in California, and hopes to go nationwide.

Different goals
Older online daters appear to have different goals from their younger counterparts, according to a survey by Match.com.  It found that 26 percent of singles age 55 and older indicated they were looking for a commitment or marriage, much lower than the 55 percent for ages 18 to 29; and 60 percent for ages 30 to 39.

Dr. Gilda Carle, a Yonkers, N.Y., psychotherapist, believes online dating gives seniors "something to live for that they didn't have before.  This will guarantee a greater longevity for our seniors."

Orr said, "Most women who tried it didn't know any available men offline, and were surprised to see there are men out there."

Still, there are disappointments — as there are in dating at any age.

Megan Appleton, 72, of Philadelphia, who has been separated for 20 years, said she had a date with a man she met online, but he never called her again.  She doesn't think she will try again.  "I would rather play bridge with my friends," she said.

But there are many others who found love.

John Fox, 62, who got divorced in January 2001, started surfing the Web soon after.  In May 2002, the Heber-Overgaard, Ariz., resident met Judi Carpenter, a recent widow, who lived five hours away in Bullhead.  They married the following October.

"I dated other ladies through my church, but this was a wonderful way of meeting people," Fox said.