Romance is far from dead for over 50s
These days, over 50 is far from over the hill when it comes to dating and there are plenty of Irish women looking for love in their autumn years. Johanna Gohmann reports
There's something different about that couple kissing on the movie screen. Both people have crow's feet for starters, and the man is sporting a small paunch. Can this really be a romantic comedy? About the love lives of -- gasp! -- older people?
In today's world, it's never too late for love, and films such as Something's Gotta Give or the more recent It's Complicated are finally acknowledging the unique relationships of the senior set. There are books on the subject, such as Dr Amanda Smith Barusch's Love Stories of Later Life: A Narrative Approach to Understanding Romance, which features essays from older people about falling in love later in life. Now there's even a play: Jane Juska's A Round-Heeled Woman, a memoir that details her search at age 67 for the perfect lover, has just hit the stage in San Francisco.
It's as though society has finally dusted off its bifocals and realised that the image of the grey-haired, bingo-obsessed granny is, in fact, outmoded. Nowadays, granny's hair is more likely to be tastefully highlighted, and she's probably traded her bingo cards for an online 'wink' at a stranger.
The 2006 census states there were more than 150,000 single Irish people between the ages of 60 and 74. Some of these singles were divorced, some never married and some were widowed. But regardless of the circumstances of their singledom, a great many of these seniors are embracing the dating scene. Catherine (65), from Galway, doesn't have any qualms about continuing her search for Mr Right
"It has become quite acceptable to date into your 60s," she says. "I just feel so much younger than my parents at my age. I can't for the life of me imagine them ever dating again. For them, there would have been no question of it. You would just be content with your lot."
Today's older set shrug off the very idea, and some have turned to dating sites such as Another Friend.com, or MaybeFriends.com. Some opt for sites that cater specifically to older adults, such as DatingforSeniors.com or Fifty Already.com. Others are using dating services and some are trying their luck the old-fashioned way, at the local pub.
But, one wonders, what is the dating experience for the over 50s really like?
"Well, would you like the abbreviated version? It's a bloody nightmare," laughs 62-year-old Mary Merne. Mary has been divorced since 1975, and aside from a few long-term relationships, she's spent most of her adult life single. She's been online dating for about seven years now, at AnotherFriend.com.
"It's just a minefield," she says. "Most of the guys you meet over 50... well, their get up and go has got up and gone a long time ago. And the guys under 50 don't want a woman over 60."
Mary also finds herself at odds with the cultural shift toward casual sex. "Back when I was younger, it used to be you'd just kiss and hold hands. But the men I meet now want to embrace the rules of today's teenagers and get laid on the first date. But I'm old-fashioned enough to think 'no, I want to know somebody before I go to bed with them'. I respect my body more than that. But I've been on first dates where the men have been up for it. And I'm thinking, 'Hang on, I just met you a few minutes ago'."
Yet, for all of her cynicism about dating, she has no plans to throw in the towel. "I'm a hopeless romantic, and I won't give up until I don the wooden overcoat," she says. "In the meantime, I'm not miserable that I don't have someone in my life. It would just be a nice little extra, wouldn't it?"
For Catherine, she also finds it difficult to meet people who don't shy away after learning her age. "Time is not on my side," she says. "There are just much fewer men in the pot for me to choose from at this point. One of the major difficulties for us in our 60s is that on the face of it, without physically knowing you, people know you only as a number. Anyone looking at my age says, 'Oh forget it'. They think I'm a granny."
Lest anyone think women are the only victims of ageism, think again. Men feel it too. "As you get older, you go out of fashion," says Ray, a Dubliner in his late 60s. Ray also feels he is unjustly seen as merely a number. "A number means nothing. There are people who are 40 and seem dead. And then there are people who are 60 and older, and are really exciting people to be with."
Married for 35 years, Ray was divorced four years ago. He took a couple of years to see if he liked being on his own, but decided to plunge back into the dating pool. "I've got no problem being alone," he says. "I can be very happy. But I've come to the conclusion that you can't enjoy things on your own as much as you can with another person."
He had no interest in the online dating world, as he found it to be too impersonal, so he decided to try the matchmaking service It's Just Lunch, which pairs people up according to their interests, so that they can meet for a casual meal or drinks. So far he likes the service, and has even had a brief relationship spring from it.
Ray finds the most significant challenge of dating for the 60-plus crowd is the intense emotional baggage. "As you get older, if you're not married, well, you've got the baggage of having never married. Then if you're divorced, you've got that baggage. So that's all in there. And it's very difficult to release that on the next person you meet. Or it could be that your partner has died.
"Actually, widows are probably carrying the least amount of baggage, in the sense that they're usually more open and easier to be with."
Another very basic issue for senior singles can be the lack of places to socialise, which is why so many have turned to online dating and membership services. While there are various senior programmes and clubs in Ireland, these groups, for many, simply feel too musty.
Ray grades the senior social scene as "very, very poor", while Mary labels it "inane", saying: "I'm not ready for those senior
clubs. I won't be ready for those even when I'm 100."
Angy Liddy (56) has managed to locate some enjoyable social groups through her online dating sites. "I've joined some of the groups that are organised on the events page," she says. "There are walks arranged and holidays and nights out. I've gone to some, more with a view of making friends, and if you did meet someone, fine. But it's an opportunity to meet people without any of the pressure of dating." In April, she'll be taking a trip to Spain that was organised through a dating site. The trip will include 58 over-50s singles.
Angy separated from her husband nine years ago, after a 27-year marriage. She is a member of three different dating sites. "When I first started online dating, my kids thought I was mad, saying, 'Oh god, mom, you're not'. But since then, my son and daughter have been internet dating. So I can't be that mad."
She says she enjoys the online scene, but wishes there were some age-friendly nightlife spots in Dublin. "I love to dance," she says. "It would be nice if there were clubs for the over-40s. That would be super. People would fill them, because there's an awful lot of people on their second and third time round."
Reading about the various challenges of dating at an older age, many seniors might be inclined to agree with Mary's assessment that it's one big "minefield". But minefield or not, it certainly isn't deterring anyone.
"The rate of romantic relationships in people over 55 is rapidly increasing," says Dr Fiona Newell. Fiona is the associate professor at the Institute of Neuroscience and the School of Psychology at Trinity. She does much of her research working with older adults, and she says a lot of the feedback she gets is regarding love relationships.
"They say, 'Oh, you know everyone is doing research on memory decline or Alzheimer's, blah blah blah ... and we just want to have fun; we want to go out on dates'." she explains.
Fiona says that we know intuitively that attractiveness does not pertain to just one particular age group. There are plenty of older people out there who we find universally attractive, for example Helen Mirren or Alec Baldwin.
"It's obvious that we still know what makes an attractive person, irrespective of their age, so we're trying to find data around that," she says.
"I mean, we're all in this together. We're all getting older, and it's interesting to try to look at what we will be looking for as we get older."
Dating later in life is not without its advantages. While time might not be on your side, experience certainly is. Catherine says: "Dating is so much easier at this point. I'm not so emotionally involved. You're much more relaxed as you grow older, and you realise that if something doesn't work out, well, you can't be everything to everybody."
Angy agrees: "You're more aware of the things that are important in a relationship. You're also more laid back. For instance, I'm very happy for someone to have their own outlets and hobbies and do their own thing, which might feel threatening when you're younger."
The French actress Jeanne Moreau once said: "Age does not protect you from love, but love to some extent protects you from age." Angy, for one, is a believer.
"The fact is, if you're dating, it really does bring out the youth in you," she says. "There is that flirty part of us all, and romantic part, that is always there in a romantic partnership. And it's nice to have that in your life. Whether you're 30, or whether you're 50 or 60."