Older adults are the fastest-growing demographic on online dating websites, so much so that there has been a recent proliferation of sites catering specifically for the senior market, such as DatingOver60s, SeniorFriendFinder and Senior Dating.
Australian dating website RSVP claims that adults aged 50-plus make up 22% of its membership and the oldest registered member is 91 years old. In terms of how big this phenomenon is becoming, a 2011 worldwide survey of 25,000 married or cohabiting people found that 37% of those aged 60 years-plus had met their partners through the internet.
Why 60-plus daters go online
Recent research conducted at Swinburne University investigated the dating and relationship practices of older Australian adults aged between 60 and 92. Those who had met their partners through dating websites went online because they felt there were very limited places and opportunities to meet like-minded others and because they no longer took part in the pub and club scene.
Lorraine, 65, remarked:
None of the places I frequent seem to have single males in my age group.
Naomi, 61, said:
There is really no other place that someone my age can meet people. It is not cool to be old and desperate.
Apart from a dearth of available partners in their social or friendship groups, it is hard for older adults to work out who is actually available. Just because someone is single, widowed or divorced, that does not mean they are interested in dating.
Online it is clear why they are there. Older adults who have, for the most part, been married or cohabited long-term, fear the embarrassment of getting it wrong. Online dating alleviates that worry.
For many older adults, online dating is easy, relatively safe, anonymous and provides a structured approach to what is typically an unstructured process.
As Neil, 71, said:
I recognised the net as the most practical way to connect with like-minded people of a similar age plus the ability to match for common interests/locality and see a photo. Where else can you do that? It works and it works well for me.
The setting up of profiles, viewing others’ profiles and photographs, sending “kisses” or “stamps”, responding with emails, chatting online or by phone and in due course meeting in real life, is a process organised and regularised by the online dating websites. It takes away the stress of meeting someone new.
Taking it at their own pace
Many older adults initiate meetings with numerous prospective partners over many months. For others, the online dating experience is comparatively brief as they find a connection with someone almost immediately.
Neil had been using dating websites for seven years and had established contact with about 200 women. He describes how his relationships unfolded:
Of those 200, only one third progressed to regular communication, phone calls and emails, and of those 66 about half got to the coffee meeting stage. So that gets down to 33 RSVP coffee meetings. Out of those coffee meetings, usually only about one out of five developed into a romantic relationship. Now this may sound like rather poor odds, but from my point of view six or seven romantic relationships over six or seven years at my age is an extremely positive outcome.
Obviously one has to be persistent and incredibly optimistic, but from my point of view I have had seven happy years, made some wonderful and permanent friends and lost nothing along the way. Where else can I get anything like that except on the internet?
Neil liked the structured approach to meeting people he found online and he liked that there were numerous potential partners who might be interested in him.
In contrast, Elaine’s online presence was relatively short-lived. Elaine, 61, quickly found a compatible partner:
The third man I’d contacted replied to my message … and suggested meeting for coffee. I replied that I’d like to email him a bit to learn more about him. We exchanged about three emails apiece and then we met for coffee.
The older adults in this study met their dating partners offline in a very short space of time and they usually became sexually intimate with them within four weeks. For some this occurred the first time they met face-to-face. Many described a sense of urgency that compelled them to meet up as quickly as possible.
For George, 69, the “best thing” about online dating was the “speed” with which relationships could be swiftly advanced to real-life experiences. He was dating for the first time since the death of his wife and met his new partner offline within four days of meeting online.
Lachlan, 63, described a similar situation. He and his partner were stunned at the outset by how quickly their relationship developed, he said.
Fast and intense, the speed left both of us having panic wobbles … Both of us were stunned by the pace and both found it overwhelming at various times in the first few weeks.
Escaping the stereotypes
Numerous stereotypes apply to older adults as non-sexual beings or, as one participant put it, “past it”. Older adults believed the stereotypes themselves, until they found themselves involved in loving, intimate relationships. Many expressed surprise at just how sexual and exciting their new relationships were.
Max, 69, said:
I guess one of the things, Sue, that I’ve been absolutely staggered [about] and you know, God, I’m no oil painting, but I’ve been staggered … how the middle-aged and mature woman is a very sexual individual who wants to go to bed and be stroked … and this, this surprised me …
For Yvonne, 66, sex was “very important”. Using the internet to find partners provided opportunities for its expression. She observed that:
…since being involved in online romances, in some ways it has opened my eyes to the fact that some men still find me quite ‘yummy’. I like having that view of myself.
While not all relationships worked out, online dating provided a simple and easy way to locate and connect with interested and available people. The internet thus acted as a means for older adults first to initiate romantic connections and then to facilitate their offline formation into ongoing sexual relationships if they desired.