Loneliness can be deadly.
A recent study conducted by researchers at the University of Chicago tracked people over the age of 50 for six years. It found people who reported chronic feelings of isolation or loneliness had a 14 percent greater likelihood of dying than the sample as a whole. Loneliness, it turned out, was twice as deadly as being extremely overweight. Another study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, found that social isolation was associated with a plethora of serious ailments from lung disease to depression.
Among seniors, loneliness is a huge issue. As spouses pass on and marriages dissolve into divorce, an increasing number of older people are finding themselves alone. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, there are over 107 million single people in the United States, and around a third of them are over the age of 50. That’s at least 35 million single seniors. It’s a number that, as the baby-boomer generation moves into old age, is only going to swell.
While a desire to move out of the single category shouldn’t be automatically assumed, people are social animals, and the need for companionship is nearly universal. As people get older, making connections becomes increasingly difficult.
Sandy Lipkowitz is a 64-year-old travel agent living in San Francisco who got divorced in 2004. “Obviously people in their early 20s have a lot of connections. They’re in college, and then they get out in the workforce. In that age group, a large percentage of their contemporaries are single,” Lipkowitz explained. “As you start getting older, people start pairing off. Even in your 40s, people’s first marriages don’t work and then they have their second marriages—then they’re happily remarried.
“The pool of available people,” she added, “keeps getting smaller and smaller.”
Loneliness, it turned out, was twice as deadly as being extremely overweight.
In an era when one third of new marriages got their start on the Internet, it isn’t surprising that an ever-growing number of seniors are looking to online dating sites.
An analysis of dating site AYI.com found that the average user’s age is 44 for men and 42 for women—hardly senior citizens but considerably older than the popular perception of 23-year-old millennials swiping on Tinder all night.
After her divorce, Lipkowitz tried dating sites like Match, OkCupid, and JDate, but nothing clicked. “What I’m looking for in terms of a companion is different than what a 20- or 30-year-old is looking for,” she said. “One size fits all doesn’t work for this, in my opinion.”
It wasn’t the uncomfortable fit within the overall culture of the sites that bothered Lipkowitz. She nearly fell victim to a con artist who found her through a dating site.
“He was targeting women in their 50s. He wanted to get married right away. I said I wasn’t ready for that,” she recalled. “There were several things bothering me about him, so I started doing some research. I found out he was arrested for fraud and embezzlement. I talked to the authorizes where I lived at the time and found out that he had tried to pull similar scams on two other women using the same dating site.”
She felt not only left out of the world of online dating but unsafe as well. Lipkowitz then did what a growing number of seniors did when they found themselves in similar situations: She turned to specialized dating sites just for seniors.
The rise of specialty dating sites
Stitch is a dating site specifically designed to cater to the needs of seniors. Lipkowitz joined just last year and immediately got into it. She’s gone on dates and started getting involved in the Stitch community. Later this month, she’s attending a three-day cruise organized by the site from Los Angeles to Ensenada, Mexico, and she started writing a travel advice column for Stitch’s blog called Dear Sandy, drawing from her years of experience as a travel agent.
Lipkowitz’s experience is far from unique. As the world of online dating grows, it’s also fracturing. Circling around the constellation of mega sites like Match.com, eHarmony, and OkCupid are a litany of smaller sites catering to niche audiences.
As people get older, making connections becomes increasingly difficult.
People Media, a division of media conglomerate IAC, which also owns Match.com, runs around 30 different dating sites, collectively aimed at gobbling up every conceivable slice of the dating pie. There are sites for Mormons and little people. Sites for “big and beautiful” people. Sites for black people, black Christian people, and black baby boomers.
Technology specifically targeted at older people is a rapidly growing market—although maybe not one that gets a lot of attention from tech companies, which tend to prioritize products aimed at the type of the 20-something urbanites who fill their offices. However, considering one third of the U.S. population over the age of 60 and at least 59 percent of people 65 and over are using the Internet, Silicon Valley ignores this demographic at its peril.
While People Media has a handful of different sites targeting seniors, and older people do make up a not insignificant portion of Match.com, the company has made an effort to funnel most of its energies in attracting senior daters to a site called OurTime. OurTime currently has about 200,000 members, well short of Match.com’s more than 1 million, but the site has grown by 66 percent over the past two years.
“Most people try [a site like] Match.com first before they go to one of our niche sites,” explained People Media’s Christine Babiak. “I think it’s just a matter of preference, of what you’re looking for in your life. If certain things are important to you—like religion or ethnicity—that’s going to be a determining factor in which site you’re going to join.”
Picking a speciality site like OurTime over a more general one is a way for someone to signal to prospective partners what’s most important to them. If someone signs up for a dating site specifically for Muslims, it’s a way for them to say that, while they may also love the outdoors, religion is a central aspect of their lives, how they define themselves, and anyone they may make a connection needs to know that first and foremost.
“One of the things we’ve seen with OurTime is that people are legitimately looking for love or that next companion in life,” Babiak insisted. “On Match you do have people looking for love and relationships, but there is also a lot of serial dating. On OurTime, people really are looking for that connection. They’re not looking to just hook up or just for that next little date; they’re looking for that next life partner.”
Intimacy isn’t everything
According to Stitch cofounder Marcie Rogo, understanding that not all seniors want the same things and giving them simple, straightforward ways to express those preferences is crucial.
Picking a speciality site like OurTime over a more general one is a way for someone to signal to prospective partners what’s most important to them.
The concept for Stitch came to Rogo when she was working at an assisted living facility. The building and the amenities at the facility all were top of the line, but she witnessed a crushing amount of unhappiness. “People were in beautiful rooms with everything they needed,” she recalled. “But nevertheless, oh my God was there this epidemic of depression and loneliness.
“It doesn’t matter if you’re 15 or 90; you’re not walking around with a sign on your forehead that says, ‘Hi, I’m Marcie. I like to play bingo, what about you?’ she continued. “It’s very socially awkward going to up to people. It’s hard to be proactive about that. The odds are against you as you age because you have your location—that’s one way to shrink your social circles. You have illness, death. It’s really isolating because your social circle has completely changed.”
She realized that there weren’t a lot of methods for older people to connect with each other. There was Facebook, sure, but it’s typically used to stay in touch with established connections—not to make new ones.
“They wanted a companion right here,” Rogo said. “They wanted to someone in person to do things with.”
This understanding led Rogo to a breakthrough: Not everything has to be romantic. Sometimes people just want simple, in-person companionship. As a result, Stitch allows its users to indicate that they’re interested in either romantic or nonromantic relationships (or both) and requires that all matches happen within geographic proximity. It’s also why the company is hosting group events like the Mexican cruise Lipkowitz already has her ticket for.
Even so, the primacy of finding a connection doesn’t necessarily mean that older people don’t care about sex. Data provided by OurTime showed that desire for sexual intimacy stays constant or even increases over time, and 87 percent of singles between the ages of 50 and 70 said physical attraction to a potential partner was a “must-have.”
Keeping the scammers at bay
There are two things that separate senior dating sites from more general interest ones, aside from the obvious demographic differences. The first is a keen understanding of their users’ varying end goals.
“It doesn’t matter if you’re 15 or 90; you’re not walking around with a sign on your forehead that says, ‘Hi, I’m Marcie. I like to play bingo, what about you?’” —Stitch cofounder Marcie Rogo
“We heard from our users complaints about other sites out there because they are geared toward younger people who are looking to meet a husband or wife—something to reproduce with,” Rogo noted. “The messaging is always around marriage. But if you’re divorced or widowed, you might have already been there and done that. You might want to have more than one person it your life, each for a different purpose. It may be romantic, or it may not be.”
On Stitch, users’ profiles are set up to give information about precisely the type of relationship they’re looking for, the type of things they most deeply care about, and something they would love to do with someone else.
The other difference is security. Older Internet users are frequently the target of scammers, no matter what type of Internet application they’re using. As Lipkowitz’s bad experience reveals, online dating is no different. Stories of scammers using online dating sites to prey on the vulnerable pop up online on a daily basis. A 2010 report estimated that 10 percent of all online dating profiles are fraudulent.
The most common form of the scam involves a con artist starting a relationship with someone online, building trust over the course of several months, and then asking for a wire transfer when a supposedly dire situation arises—a sick child, a lost wallet, etc. The funds are wired to a foreign bank account and, like that, they’re gone.
“The scammers are fast, too; they’re really fast,” Rogo said. “Within days of when we launched, they had already found us and tried to sign up for the site. They’re constantly looking for new ways to take advantage of people who are older.”
Stitch works with a third-party company to do real identity verification, making sure that the name someone gives on their Stitch profile matches the one on their driver’s license—something that wasn’t the case with the man who tried to fleece Lipkowitz through another dating site. But it’s still an uphill battle. Stitch’s administrators turn away at least five scammers trying to set up fake profiles every day.
For Lipkowitz, that element of safety gives her a major piece of mind. “That’s really comforting in today’s world where there are hackers all over the place and people attacking websites,” she explained.
Stitch’s administrators turn away at least five scammers trying to set up fake profiles every day.
She also likes that, by using a dating site just for seniors, her pool of potential matches is a lot more targeted. “One of the things I see value in is that I’m not wasting my time talking to a lot of people on the phone or making a ton of coffee dates with people who are not going to be appropriate,” she said. “I think that’s a very positive thing.”
While the site has yet to yield anything long-term, Lipkowitz has used it to make some connections. She recently used it to go on a date with a very nice gentleman. “The chemistry wasn’t there, but at least he was a good, decent person,” she recalled.
She said that she is looking to get married again sometime in the future, but for now, she’s happy to just be able to link into a network of people with similar interests.
“Travel is hard when you’re single,” Lipkowitz said. “I know from my own personal experience. I’ve traveled a lot. It’s not as much fun. It’s nice when you’re looking at a gorgeous view to have someone to turn to and ask, ‘Isn’t that a magnificent sunset?'”
Illustration by Max Fleishman