Loving & Learning

For mature single people, dating at this stage of life brings different expectations and challenges.

Ah, to be over 50 and on the dating scene. Again. It may not show up much on television or at the movies, but there is indeed a romantic world out there for unattached people who remember the Eisenhower administration.

The swarms of available others do seem to dissipate as one waltzes past 40 and 50, but mature singles say that even though the search takes a little more effort, the journey back into romance can actually be a lot more relaxed and fun than it was in their 20s.

"It's absolutely liberating," says Judy, a Connecticut woman in her 50s. "Getting past the pressure of others' expectations is absolutely fabulous. There is no expectation to have [another] child, there are no time limitations...." and marrying in their 20s through 40s, few foresee a second era of singledom.

"In life everyone is going to be single at some point. It's totally natural," says Margaret Kaplan, a psychologist in New York who co-teaches a workshop called Being Single 45+.

Diana Halperin, a single woman on the brink of 40, was feeling adventurous when she heard an announcement that the television show "Blind Date" was coming to town and was looking for participants. Then she heard: "So if you're looking for a blind date and are between the ages of 22 and 38...." Ms. Halperin, discouraged, says she thought to herself, "Great. When did the world decide that 39 was out of commission?"

Most agree that it is more difficult to meet new people once you're older. Ms. Kaplan gives out a three-page memo in her workshop of where and how to make connections in New York City. A guide like that has become so sought-after that Kaplan says people not in the class have offered to buy it.

"It's harder to meet people as you get older because you know more about what you're looking for and you're leading more with your head than with your heart," says Carol Cooper, who runs Adventures in Dining in New Jersey, which organizes group dinners for singles.

Older singles do say, however, that they feel liberated from the expectations attached to dating before a first marriage.

"It's a lot more fun at this age, now that there is so much less at stake," says Christopher Hawes, a 40-something owner of a hair salon in Boston. "You have that confidence that you don't have at a younger age, and you acquire more of a dimension, and that becomes alluring."

A 59-year-old teacher who lives in Westchester, N.Y., and was married for 25 years before being widowed a few years ago says she often hears people say that older singles are looking for "companionship," but that one does not outgrow wanting a deeper romance. "I am looking for a love interest, and not just for companionship," she says. "I want the passion and excitement of a relationship."

Marcia Lewis was single for nearly 20 years after her divorce before she found another life partner. "Just when you think you're out of the game, somebody tosses you a ball," says the 60-something actress who is now performing in the show "Chicago" on Broadway.

She met her new love a few years ago when a friend seated her next to another friend at a party in Venice. She and the slightly older Southern gentleman developed a long-distance friendship between New York and Nashville, getting together for lunch every couple of months. It wasn't until he became suddenly ill that she discovered the depth of her feelings for him, and wrote him a heartfelt get-well letter that took their relationship to a new level. He recovered, and last November he proposed. The couple is getting married in June.

"We're going to have a big, beautiful New York wedding, with bridesmaids and all the grandchildren," Ms. Lewis says with glitter in her voice. "I know it was meant to be."

Having managed some times of sadness over the years, she has advice for women her age: "You have to take big chances. Get out of the house and give it a go!"

Where to go, though? Meeting casually becomes more of a challenge later in life, so organized events can be even more useful. Those who feel that attending a singles dance is just too reminiscent of high school, with the girls on one side of the gym and the boys on the other, can meet new people at group dinners for singles, or through an organization like The Language Club in New York, which every Monday seats individuals with others who speak the same second language to practice and socialize. The Bruce Museum in Connecticut holds Friday evening events with music and dancing for anyone who wants to come, although it is popular with singles as an alternative to a bar scene or a singles party proper.

Judy in Connecticut belonged to a social group - that was not only for singles - for 10 years before she discovered a man who had been there all along. "We started talking and it was just comfort," she says. "Immediately I knew this person is really going to be good for me," even though she says he is not someone she would have been drawn to in her 20s.

Women who run singles events say that women are more social than men in general and are more ready to move on after a divorce or being widowed. "Women tend to pick themselves up and get themselves out," says Susan Kuper, who runs the National Singles Association, a local group in New York. Consequently, there are often more women at singles events and they seem more comfortable when they get there, Kuper and others have noted.

And, in fact, there are more available women as a whole: 43 million of them, vs. 36 million single men as of 1998, according to the US Census Bureau. The older the age group, the more pronounced the imbalance: of those 75 and over, 52 percent of women are single but only 21 percent of men.

"When you're married you think, 'Now I have my partner for life,' and you don't think like a single person anymore," says Jim Musnicki, a New Yorker in his late 40s who met his wife in high school and was married for more than 20 years before being widowed. "So you have to change your outlook a little and keep reminding yourself that you are single again."

That can be especially true for those who have been ensconced in marriage until they are in their 50s, 60s, or later - ages they never thought of as being a time for dating.

Ann, a Westchester resident in her mid-60s who has been divorced for five years, says she has had to overcome a reluctance to get out on the singles scene. "In my mother's generation, people wouldn't have thought of going out after 60," she says. "But times have changed."

Not for all. Ann describes a friend, also in her 60s, who has been widowed for 10 years and wouldn't think of going to a singles event. "She has X'd the whole thing out of her mind and would prefer to go to an art class or out with the girls," Ann says.

It used to be much more common for singles events to define the age group they were targeting. But since age is becoming increasingly irrelevant for couples today and many have an age gap between them of two decades or more, specifying who is invited does not happen as much.

"Anyone is welcome to come to any event, because it's not the age that matters but who they're meeting," Ms. Kuper says. "You never know who you'll like." However, Kuper holds events at various types of venues because they attract a concentration of different age groups.

The Marion Smith Professional Singles group in New York states on the invitations to its dances that there are designated areas for those under 26, those in their late 20s through early 40s, and those in their mid-40s and up, although they say co-mingling is fine. Of course, the last category includes more than double the ages of the other two, perhaps underscoring that the older one becomes, the less age matters.

Older men chasing the younger women, however, is a classic scenario that discourages some older women from embracing the dating scene. "If there are younger women in a group, even if a man is pushing 70 or 80 he'll go for them. It gets you in the gut," says Ann.

Elizabeth Dribben, a radio-arts commentator in New York who describes herself jokingly as "past the age of consent," equates men picking up women decades younger with the awkwardness of wearing a toupee. "Why bother to do it? Because it doesn't make them look more virile, it makes them look silly," she says.

Ms. Cooper, however, notes that several of the couples who met at one of her singles dinners and eventually "walked off into the sunset together" were women in their 40s who clicked with men in their 60s.

"Romance involves chemistry, and that doesn't change whether you're older or younger, but the expectations are different," Kaplan says.

Despite how it may seem, the reverse scenario of older women dating younger men is becoming less uncommon, and more socially accepted. Judy knows a couple with nearly 20 years' age difference. Although at first the woman was concerned that her being older would bother her boyfriend, it never has and their relationship is going fine. Public examples such as actors Susan Sarandon and Tim Robbins are helping to break down cultural stereotypes.

The man Judy is dating from her social group is a few years younger. She felt self-conscious about telling him that she was over 50, more because of the notions she had growing up about people over 50: "They became more matronly. You were done with your major projects in life like raising a family," she says. "I feel more energetic and have more stamina than I did in my 20s. But I still don't like the number!"

Those like Lewis who have weathered decades of the single life know that aging is like walking toward the horizon: the farther you go, the farther it stretches so that you never arrive there.

"The stories I love to hear are when a couple went together as younger people and then went their separate ways and then ended up together," Ms. Dribben says. "They're older, they're wrinkled, but there's a comfort there, and the love in their eyes is so evident. They shine."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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