A Golden Age for Online Dating

Single, divorced and widowed older daters are turning to the Internet to meet new people, just like thier children and grandchildren do.

Something was missing from Linda Evans' life. In her late 50s, Linda had two grown children and a job she liked. She was happy despite being divorced for nearly a decade.

After 21 years of marriage, Linda had discovered that dating at her age was not her forte. She had tried set-ups and church singles groups with no luck. "I had pretty much decided to not date," Linda says. "It was so depressing out there."

After swearing off the singles scene, Linda had a forced change of heart at her nephew's wedding. Linda's sister, worried that she was going to end up alone and unhappy, made her promise to try one more thing before giving up: online dating.

Linda agreed. She asked friends and relatives to recommend a site. A popular answer was eHarmony.com. She heard the profile questions were very thorough and the site was safe and confidential. So she signed on, giving herself three months to find someone. It only took her three weeks.

Dozens of sites are set up to help people just like 59-year-old Linda ó an older, experienced dater ó to find a companion or significant other. Some, such as eHarmony.com, Match.com and Matchmaker.com, are designed for people of all ages, while others, such as ThirdAgePersonals.com (run by eHarmony.com) and SeniorFriendFinder.com, are specifically designed to cater to an older crowd. These sites keep growing in popularity as older people divorce and become as Internet-savvy as their children and grandchildren.

"More seniors are becoming comfortable using the Internet, and it seems as if they trust the online dating process a little more," says Peggy Prendergast, public relations manager for SeniorFriendFinder.com, which has seen its membership double each year since 2000. More than 10,000 Ohioans are registered members.

Senior dating sites are marketed much differently than other dating sites, Prendergast says. "The banners and [photos] we use are not as risquÈ or sexy," she explains. "They show couples on the beach or holding hands instead of kissing with skimpy clothes."

Through SeniorFriendFinder.com, people can meet singles from Canada, Europe, Australia and even the Middle East. But Linda, a health store supervisor, set her sights a little closer to home. She narrowed her search to a 150-mile radius from her home in Akron. Within a month, she met Roger Evans, 55, from Parma Heights, who works at the Ford plant in Brook Park.

"I was very fortunate," says Linda, because she met her match so quickly. Most of the time, it doesn't happen like that.

After a year online, Roger, who was divorced after a 23-year marriage, says he was ready to give up. He had been on several disappointing dates. "Some people stretched the truth," he says, shaking his head and laughing. On one first date, he couldn't even recognize the woman from her online picture. The photograph was of her, only 10 years younger. Roger was immediately turned off. There was no second date.

Roger and Linda both stress the basic safety tips for online dating: Don't give someone your address until you know you can trust them. Meet in a public place the first time for a safe cup of coffee. If the date is going well, it can always be extended to a full meal. Always make sure a friend knows where you are and has your date's contact information, just in case.

"Especially for seniors, be very careful," says Linda, who definitely does not look her age, with short blonde hair and a tan complexion. "It's easy to find yourself in a vulnerable position."

That's exactly what Linda feared before she met Roger for the first time at a coffee shop in Medina. She says she sat in her car for 45 minutes before the date, fighting with herself over whether to go inside.

But she went in. And this past September, they celebrated their first wedding anniversary. They now live in Parma Heights, Roger's hometown.

Despite online dating's growing popularity, it still seems to be something that is done, but not always discussed. "It's like a black eye, almost," says Roger, who's tall and solid with wire-framed glasses that soften his look. But he adds he'd be more embarrassed to say he met someone at a bar.

Linda sympathizes with those online daters who want to keep what they do hush-hush. "I've found there's a lot of interest, but when I first got on it, I was embarrassed," she says. Now, she's ready to let everyone know how she and Roger met. "I know how it works. I know how happy we are."

Patience is key for those looking to get started. Just to sign up and fill out personality forms could take hours. EHarmony.com has an especially thorough matching system; Linda says it took her three hours to fill out the form.

Some forms are less involved, such as those on SeniorFriendFinder.com, where members go into as much depth as they want in their profile, then can browse other members themselves instead of waiting to be matched.

Profile questions range from number of grandchildren to marital status (divorced, widowed, single) to religion, profession and living situation. Some sites rate your compatibility with other members or offer you a chance to take a personality test. People can join others' networks of friends, enter chat rooms to write to each other, and even wink at each other. You can search for potential dates or for friends: Couples can look for couples and anyone can look for companions of the same sex.

Jane Sahr, 61, has tried eHarmony.com and PerfectMatch.com, which match members based on the information in their profiles. Site managers with eHarmony.com pair members, while PerfectMatch.com offers members the option to search for other members on the site. Sahr says both sites seem to focus more on marriage than simply dating or friendship.

Sahr, a mother of three and grandmother of six, likes Internet dating because it creates a barrier between her and the men she meets, so she can maintain privacy and feel safe. She's not at all shy about discussing her online dating experiences, even though they haven't been positive, but she can understand why others might not want to talk about it.

"I would guess a lot of people are having negative experiences and think it's just them," Sahr says. "I bet the people having similar experiences are ashamed about it."

During a search on PerfectMatch.com, Sahr found 180 men between age 58 and 75 in the area who matched her profile. (Women outnumber men three to one on senior Web sites, because women tend to live longer, Prendergast says.)

"It must be popular, because why would there be so many people?" Sahr says. Like Linda Evans, Sahr, from Stow, chose a 150-mile radius and has talked with men from Ohio, Michigan and West Virginia.

Sahr, who was widowed five years ago, built up her courage to sign up online when a friend said she had luck with eHarmony.com. She says she'd tapped out all the organizations she belongs to, including church groups and art clubs such as the Hudson Art Society, which she helps run. She says the men in those groups were either married or had girlfriends, or she wasn't interested.

Not as a last resort, but rather a change of pace, she says, Sahr spent three months on eHarmony.com with no luck. She corresponded with dozens of men with whom eHarmony.com tried to set her up. She sent some of the site's recommended multiple-choice questions to the men, then marked their names down on her calendar and patiently waited two weeks, as eHarmony.com suggests. When she didn't hear a response, the men were placed in the trash. "I wouldn't want to beat them over the head to respond," she says.

Sahr says she went through three emotional stages after three months with no luck: frustration, anger and then finally acceptance, when she said to herself, "Oh well, this is the game."

Cutting her losses, Sahr signed up on PerfectMatch.com, because it serves as the backdrop for the movie "Must Love Dogs." She posted a picture of herself and her two puppies.

Sahr has been on the site for two months and has talked to nearly a dozen "fellows" so far. She gives them five days to respond before she cuts them off ("none of this two weeks business").

For another month, Sahr plans to sit back and let PerfectMatch.com pair her up. "I'm just going to patiently wait for them to pick someone who might be my perfect match," she laughs. She paid for three months up front, and when her time is up, Sahr plans on taking a little break from the Internet.

"I'm not giving up, but I don't have such high expectations as when I started," she says. She laughs and adds, "It's an experience, at least."

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