Never Too Late




Many seniors are taking a (second) chance on romance.

When Marcel Pion lost his wife Gloria to pancreatic cancer, he became a widower after 42 years of marriage. Happy to golf and then have a few beers afterwards with "the guys," Pion was content to do his own thing, spending winters at his home in Florida and the warm weather months back in Manchester. "There were plenty of women who wanted to go on dates with me in Florida," he says, "but I just wasn't that interested." Then five years later, after going to a memorial Mass for his wife at his church in Manchester, he struck up a conversation with a woman who was also a regular at the 5:30 Mass he usually attended. A week later he asked her out to lunch, and they've been together ever since. "I wasn't looking for anybody, it was just one of those things," he says. "Luck of the draw."

Not everyone is this lucky, however. When anyone gets divorced or loses a spouse it's tough to take another chance on love. But for seniors who have been out of the dating pool for a while, wading back in after the end to a long marriage or the death of a loved one is like testing out the waters at Hampton Beach in June: it can make for some cold feet.

For one thing, today's version of "dating" (if you even want to call it that, which many seniors don't) offers a whole lot more options. Not only are there the traditional meeting places - a church or synagogue, a bar or singles dance, even the grocery store - but now there's also more modern-day alternatives like online dating websites or chat rooms. For those who haven't dated since Jim Lange hosted "The Dating Game" on television, it can all get a little intimidating or confusing. But that's no reason to avoid dating altogether when you're ready to jump back in.

"If you consider seniorhood is 60 to over 100, that's 40 years. It equals a big part of a person's life," says Barbara Vigneault, director of the Senior Services Department for the city of Manchester. "It's natural for people to look for companions for all kinds of different reasons. No man is an island - it's an instinctive thing to be social."

In fact, Vigneault equates people needing other people to a basic need, like food or shelter: "It's no accident that isolation is used as punishment in prision," she says. "It works." She adds that when you're young, you have your parents, your friendships and school. You grow up and get married and continue to have friends throughout your life. "But as we get older those relationships disappear - people move away or die, you get divorced - and you continue having to network."

Martha Bauman, 78, and Bob Forney, 80, both from Keene, have been partners for three years now. But don't mention that they've been "dating" that long. "The word 'dating' isn't quite accurate for what happens with seniors," says Bauman. "I think of dating as exploring for future romance when you're young. When older people begin to engage in the social scene, they are looking for someone to do something with, a companion to go out to dinner and go to the movies or take a trip." In Bauman's case, she and Bob had known each other casually for a few years (they were in a biking group together and occasionally saw each other at potlucks and such). But after her 75th birthday, Bauman decided that she wanted to make two new friends, one male and one female, to do things with. So she gave him a call with that proposition, and he accepted. "We spent several months just being buddies, and then romance reared its charming head," says Bauman. "I was never consciously dating and I thought I had found a buddy. The addition of romance is quite nice, though."

She also knows of one couple who have a committed relationship that never developed into a romance. "It's more like, 'we're friends, we like doing things together,'" she says. "I think the primary motivator is someone to have a good time with, and if that leads to romance, well, all the better." The opposite can also be true: Bauman knows of at least half a dozen or more couples in their 60s or 70s who have committed sexual relationships but keep separate homes. "They're not looking for anyone else but don't want to live together."

The good news is that most seniors, with all of their life experience, are more aware of what they want - and what they don't want - in a mate or companion. They know what to look for and can afford to be fussy and not waste time with someone who might not share their needs or values. Another benefit to senior dating is that the usual hang-ups of work schedules, family pressures and kids just don't apply anymore.

At the William B. Cashin Senior Activity Center in Manchester, run by the Senior Services Department and where Vigneault works, the more than 2,000 senior members are doing just that. "Senior centers are safe environments where people can be comfortable with each other and know that there won't be inappropriate behavior," says Vigneault. With everything from card games and computers to line dancing and travel groups, seniors can find lots of people interested in the same things they are. It's a great place to meet a mate. And you don't have to live in Manchester - or even a major city - to take advantage of a senior center. With nearly 50 in New Hampshire alone, according to The New Hampshire Association of Senior Centers (NHASC), a statewide non-profit organization, single seniors can find one close to them.

Other potential meeting hot spots? You could try volunteering (check out www.volunteermatch.com for projects in your area), taking courses through your local college's continuing education classes, joining your library's book club or getting your green thumb on at a gardening club.

Online dating sites like Match.com or eharmony.com are growing in popularity with single seniors, but can be intimidating for the generation who didn't grow up using the Internet. While it gives you better chances than meeting that single someone in a grocery line, and the control to contact who you want to meet, you have to be diligent about finding out who you're really meeting - and what you allow others to know about yourself.

"More older people are looking into these," says Bauman. "They no longer have the fear factor or stigma that it once did." In fact, she says her next door neighbors met through an Internet site. But again, it's not for everybody.

For those who might need a little bit more help from Cupid, traditional dating services offer an in-between from going it alone or using an online service. Together of New Hampshire has been in business for 28 years, according to Vice President Janis Lewis. She says that about 25-30 percent of their clients are people over 55 who have been divorced or widowed. "The good thing about Together is that we hold their hand, as opposed to being out there on your own trying to meet somebody," she says. "Online dating sites are overwhelming and nobody is filtering what people are saying," Lewis adds. "We screen everybody and meet everybody."

Regardless of the method, finding someone to make you happy can mean different things to different people, whether it's a romantic relationship or simply a companion who will share common interests with you. The key is to start off slow, be open minded about trying new dating methods and be true to yourself. The water just might not be as cold as you think. NH

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