Over the last decade senior dating has emerged as one of the most rapidly growing segments of online matchmaking. Worldwide, mature adults are browsing the web for prospective partners. Yet there are still misconceptions surrounding older people’s romantic lives, particularly when it comes to emotional fulfilment and sexual satisfaction. In search of explanations, EliteSingles spoke to two gerontologists to unravel the reality of senior dating.
First up, why are so many older adults logging on to the internet to find love? According to a 2016 report released by the US-based Pew Research Centre, there was a 100 percent jump in people aged 55-64 using dating sites between 2005 and 20151. Though there was no major hike in the 65+ cohort, we can assume more people in this age group are online due to population change. Given the numbers don’t lie, how do we explain this trend?
Though there are a variety of valid explanations that apply, the most straightforward rests on the fact that, demographically speaking, we’re getting older. This shift is observable in almost every advanced industrial country; ageing populations, coupled with higher life expectancies, have lead statisticians to forecast that over the next 15 years there will be a 56 percent increase in the number of people aged over 602.
It follows that there’s also been a rise in the amount of older people who’ve either gone through a divorce or experienced widowhood. Looking for some clarity we spoke to Summer Roberts, a professor at the University of South Carolina Beaufort whose interest centres on online relationships in middle and later life. The American academic feels that rediscovering love after 60 can be an intimidating prospect.
“For many older adults, dating has not been a concern in many years,” she says, “figuring out how to get back into the dating scene can be daunting. Additionally, some of the opportunities for meeting dating partners, such as workplaces, bars and clubs, are not available to older adults due to age norms.”
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Dating websites thus provide an accessible platform for mature singles to meet one another. Roberts reasons that the senior dating boom “is part of the larger set of technological advancements, including smart phones, tablets and social media, all of which have the potential to increase engagement”. “In terms of meeting new people to date, online dating sites offer possibilities for causal dates, as well as long-term relationships and support,” she adds.
Another expert we contacted is Eden Davis, a researcher at the University of Texas who published a paper in 2015 on older people’s experiences of online dating and how they vary from those of younger users3. She suggests that senior dating can have a distinct impact upon a person’s quality of life. “Online dating certainly has the potential to positively impact the lives of older adults. If individuals are able to find a romantic partner online, they have the chance to reap the benefits of partnership, especially in terms of decreased loneliness,” she says.
In light of the resounding evidence and upbeat possibilities, there’s still concern that older adults’ are marred by a stigma not felt by younger generations when it comes to online dating. If public perception of meeting people via the web has truly improved over the last 15 years4, why are older people still losing out?
Debunking delusions of decline
The main onus on older people’s romantic ruminations is ageism. At the collective level, we’re very quick to associate old age with decline, frailty and dependency on others. The threat of growing old frightens younger people as it summons the idea of losing authorship over your own fate, a severe affront to the individuality and independence associated with youthfulness.
An upshot of this logic that feeds into senior dating is the conviction that older people don’t have sex and aren’t interest in passionate romance whatsoever. This stereotype works against both older men and women; the former are denounced as less virile, whilst the latter must shoulder the notion that beauty belongs to the young.
“Older adults encounter ageism in being seen as unattractive and asexual, women in particular are devalued with aging,” says Roberts, “but single older adults are frequently interested in new experiences, dating, relationships, and sex.” Davis agrees with this point too: “Stereotypes of older adults present them as uninterested in sex, yet research suggests that older adults who have romantic partners are sexually active.”
In 2015 EliteSingles conducted a study that bolsters Davis and Roberts’ claims. The 2500-respondent survey, which explored the link between age and sexuality, found that 93 percent of 70+ year olds thought sex is important to a relationship. Of that cohort, 83 percent agreed that sex improves with age. Suffice it to say, those are pretty unanimous figures.
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An additional fallacy that’s pertinent here centres on older people’s internet usage. A handful of studies over the last decade have queried the widespread notion that older people are inept when it comes to adapting to technology5. Yet it’s glaringly obvious that this technophobic label is inaccurate, especially given that there’s solid evidence to the contrary.
Further research carried out by Pew yielded a host of stateside-stats concerning age and internet use6. Based on data collected between 2000 and 2016, the study found that 64 percent of US adults aged 65 and over were on the net last year, compared to a mere quarter in 2000. Similarly, only 46 percent of 50-64 year olds were online at the turn of the millennium, far less than the 87 percent surfing by 2016.
Roberts echoes these findings, though she’s measured with her words. “Older adults have been somewhat slower accessing the internet and using it to the extent that younger adults do, largely because they were not introduced to it through work and school,” she says, “however, internet usage has certainly increased among older adults and, when introduced to technology, they’re quite capable of becoming technologically literate.”
The reality of senior dating
Preconceptions suitably shattered, what do older folk’s romantic relationships actually look like? Funnily enough, they’re quite similar to those of younger adults. However, as Davis revealed in 2015, there are some subtle differences in the way older people portray themselves on dating sites, as well as their motivations for finding love.
“Some motivations are shared between younger and older adults, such as companionship, romance, and love. However, younger adults are more focused on the “self” when seeking romantic partnership. Older adults are more likely to focus on connections to others and their health. They are also more likely to express positive emotion in their profiles,” she says.
This latent sanguinity is something called the ‘positivity effect’, the idea that there’s a correlation between aging and optimism. “Research shows that as people age, they prioritise emotionally meaningful goals, maximising positive emotional experiences and minimising unfulfilling experiences in their relationships” says Davis. “Older people who are dating online may be seeking for a relationship in which they can have positive emotional experiences,” she adds.
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Even though the overall picture is far rosier than stereotypes dictate, there are still some tricky issues that have arisen alongside the senior dating boom. The most pressing problem concerns sexual heath, a point Roberts believes should be given more attention.
“A major concern for older adults is the lack of sexual health resources made available to them when beginning online dating. These age groups often did not receive sexual health education at younger ages and tend to not be the target population for current safe sex campaigns due to ageist notions of sexuality. As a result, their use of protection against and testing for STIs may be limited in spite of being introduced to a new and seemingly limitless pool of sexual partners,” she says.
The importance of this predicament shouldn’t be neglected; one British report found that STI diagnoses in people aged 50-70 had soared by a third over the last decade7. This only bolsters the importance of bringing this matter into the public sphere more readily, as well as facilitating a clearer dialogue between health care professionals and policy-makers.
Beyond the newfound hazards and tired stereotypes, there can be no denying that senior dating represents a shift in both demographics and societal opinion. Perhaps more importantly, Davis claims that older people’s dalliance with online dating could become an engine for social change. “The sheer number of older adults utilising online dating serves to breakdown negative stereotypes that suggest they’re uninterested in romantic relationships,” she says, “as this continues to become more common, I think stigma is likely to decrease.”
- 5 facts about online dating (2016) Pew Research Centre
- World Ageing Population (2015) UN Report
- Eden Davis & Karen Fingerman (2015) Digital Dating: Online Profile Content of Older and Younger Adults
- 5 facts about online dating (2016) Pew Research Centre
- Sue Malta (2007) Love Actually! Older Adults and their Romantic Internet Relationships
- Internet/Broadband Fact Sheet (2017) Pew Research Centre
- Katie Forster (2016) Independent