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Online dating: Seniors bring different values to the process

Researchers find that many are looking not for marriage prospects (“been there, done that”), but for companionship.

BOSTON — As Internet dating sites for seniors become an increasingly hot topic among people approaching age 60 and older, the buzz is attracting attention in other circles, too. Academia, for one. Yet in a year when the oldest members of the huge baby-boom generation turn 65, the bulk of research on online dating is focused on experiences of younger adults, a pair of Ohio researchers say.

“There’s a scarcity of research on dating in later life,” say Wendy Watson and Charlie Stelle, assistant professors of gerontology at Bowling Green State University. They’re determined to change that with their current study of growing numbers of people age 60-plus who tap into, a “traditional” site geared to adults of all ages, and, a site designed for seniors. The professors shared their preliminary findings at the Gerontological Society of America‘s international conference, which wound up here last week.

Using earlier research on younger people who frequent Internet dating sites, Watson and Stelle identified values and characteristics those individuals revealed. Such as: Women advertise looks. Men advertise status.

No big “a-ha” there.

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Beyond physical attributes
But the professors’ research on people age 60-plus who use online-dating sites brought surprises. Rather than describing physical attributes, some older women portrayed themselves in new and thoughtful ways. One woman described herself as “a young spirit,” Watson said. Another wrote, “I don’t appear as old as I am.” Some older men, too, deviated from typical patterns. One man described his political beliefs. Another shared his passion for travel.

A sample online dating ad for seniors developed by Wendy Watson and Charlie Stelle.
MinnPost Photo by Kay Harvey
Part of a sample online dating ad for seniors developed for a poster by researchers Wendy Watson and Charlie Stelle.

The researchers started with a coding system identifying three personal values (active lifestyle, culture and family) that younger people typically address on online-dating sites. A second category identified three personal characteristics (honest, fun-loving and kind) that site users would like in a date.

Age-60-plus users’ online profiles introduced new values into the mix. That input led to adding to the age-60-plus list of values eight new potential characteristics/factors in a date: affectionate, intelligent, independent, purpose and goals, health status, religion/spirituality, political beliefs, and status (finances, occupation, success, possessions).

Companionship vs. marriage
In the personal-values category, many site users age 60-plus mentioned their values of companionship and compatibility in a potential mate. “Companion” and “compatible” were then added as values in the age-60-plus research coding.

For some people in their 60s, Watson says, companionship ranks as a higher priority than marriage. “Some seniors say, ‘Been there, done that.’ ” Some are looking instead for “somebody I really like, somebody who wants to do some fun activities.” The goal for some is purely finding “someone whose company they enjoy.” 

AARP has also done research on senior online dating. Information and advice is available here.

‘An avenue to meet people’
Arnette Bell, 62, says she logged onto with an open mind. She saw it as “just an avenue to meet people and go from there.” Drew Bartley, 57, visited the site thinking “it would just be fun to meet someone and have a cup of coffee.”

The experience surpassed expectations for them both. They tied the marital knot.

Six years later, Bell, a retired school principal, and Bartley, a semi-retired painting contractor, are still living happily together in Victoria, a Twin Cities exurb.

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“When I met her, that was it,” Bartley says. “She was the one.”

Bell adds: “It worked.”

Kay Harvey wrote this article as part of a MetLife Foundation Journalists in Aging Fellowship, a project of New America Media and the Gerontological Society of America.