Newly single older people are finding a dating landscape vastly different from the one they knew in their 20s and 30s. NOTE: AFL thanks Faith Hill and The Atlantic for this informative article.
When Rhonda Lynn Way was in her 50s and on the dating scene for the first time since she was 21, she had no idea where to start. Her marriage of 33 years had recently ended, and she didn’t know any single men her age in Longview, Texas, where she lives. She tried to use dating apps, but the experience felt bizarre and daunting. “You’re thrust out into this cyberworld after the refuge of being in a marriage that—even if it wasn’t wonderful—was the norm. And it’s so difficult,” she told me.
Way is now 63 and still single. She’s in good company: More than one-third of Baby Boomers aren’t currently married. Throughout their adult life, their generation has had higher rates of separation and divorce, and lower rates of marriage in the first place, than the generations that preceded them. And as people are living longer, the divorce rate for those 50 or older is rising. But that longer lifespan also means that older adults, more than ever before, have years ahead of them to spark new relationships. “Some people [in previous cohorts] might not have thought about repartnering,” notes Linda Waite, a sociologist at the University of Chicago. “But they weren’t going to live to 95.”
Bill Gross, a program manager at SAGE—an organization for older LGBTQ adults—told me that the spaces that used to serve the gay community as meeting places for potential partners, such as gay bars, now don’t always feel welcoming to older adults. In fact, many gay bars have become something else entirely—more of a general social space, as younger gay people have turned to Grindr and other apps for hookups and dates.
Dating apps can be overwhelming for some older adults—or just exhausting. Al Rosen, a 67-year-old computer engineer living in Long Island, described sending out so many dating-app messages that he had to start keeping notecards with details about each person (likes concerts, enjoys going to wineries) so that he didn’t mix them up on phone calls. He and others I talked with were tired of the whole process—of putting themselves out there again and again, just to find that most people are not a match. (For what it’s worth, according to survey data, people of all ages seem to agree that online dating leaves a lot to be desired.)
But apps, for all their frustrations, can also be hugely helpful: They provide a way for seniors to meet fellow singles even when their peers are all coupled up. “Social circles used to be constrained to your partner’s circles, your work, your family, and maybe neighbors,” Sue Malta, a sociologist at the University of Melbourne who studies aging, told me. “And once you became widowed or divorced, your circles shrank. If someone in your circle was also widowed, you wouldn’t know whether they were interested in dating unless you asked.” Dating apps make it clear whether someone’s interested or not.
Even with that assistance, though, many older Baby Boomers aren’t going on many dates. A 2017 study led by Michael Rosenfeld, a social demographer at Stanford University, found that the percentage of single, straight women who met at least one new person for dating or sex in the previous 12 months was about 50 percent for women at age 20, 20 percent at age 40, and only 5 percent at age 65. (The date-finding rates were more consistent over time for the men surveyed.)
Finding a good match can be particularly hard for straight older women, who outnumber their male counterparts. Women tend to live (and stay healthier) longer, and they also tend to wind up with older men; the older they get, the smaller and older their pool of potential partners grows. “About half of men will go on to repartner,” Susan Brown, a sociologist at Bowling Green State University, told me. “For women, it’s smaller—a quarter at best.” (And divorced men and women ages 50 or older, Brown said, are more likely than widows to form new relationships, while those who never married are the least likely to settle down with someone later on.)
One possible explanation for this gender disparity is that men rely more on their partners—not just when it comes to cooking and housework, but also for emotional and social support. Women are more likely to have their own friends to lean on, and they may not be eager to take care of another man. “For many women, it’s the first time in their life they’ve had independence—they might own a home or have a pension, or something they live off every week,” Malta told me. “They don’t want to share that.”
Still, healthy men are in high demand in assisted-living homes, Brown told me. And many of the older women I spoke with said that they were desperate to find someone active, screening dating profiles for mentions of physical activity and asking sly questions about family health conditions.
Health becomes a pressing dating concern once people enter their final stage of life. One 85-year-old woman I spoke with, who asked not to be identified in order to protect her privacy, has been dating an 89-year-old man for more than 10 years. His health is significantly worse than hers, and although she loves her partner and says she’ll stay with him, the relationship is getting harder. They don’t live together—a rule that’s been important for her, as someone who values her independence, loves to travel, and doesn’t want to slow a pace she knows he can’t keep up with. When she visits him in his retirement home a few times a week, she can sense that his health is declining. “We had wonderful conversations early on, but fewer now because he’s less engaged,” she told me. “It makes me sad to watch it happen.”
Those relationships, whether casual or serious, typically involve sex. Some researchers have found evidence of a loss of libido in older age, especially among women, but other researchers I interviewed disputed that. Meredith Kazer, a professor of nursing at Fairfield University who’s studied sexuality among older people, told me that only if and when cognitive impairment makes true consent impossible should someone stop having sex. In fact, the annual “Singles in America” survey, commissioned by the dating site Match.com, has shown that people report having the best sex of their lives in their 60s—they’ve had decades to figure out what they like, and as Kazer pointed out, they often have more time on their hands.
Of course, there are physical challenges: Starting around age 50, erections are more difficult to sustain (and less hard), and take longer to regain after orgasm. Natural vaginal lubrication dries up, the pelvic floor becomes prone to spasms, and the cervix thins out and becomes irritable. Sex can be painful, or just embarrassing or frustrating. And many of the medical conditions that are common in older adults, such as diabetes or cardiovascular disease—or the medications used to treat them—get in the way as well, impacting libido, erectile function, or response to sexual stimulation.
But there are plenty of ways to get around those limitations, from Viagra to hormone-replacement therapies to lubricants. And more than that, an assumption that older people will be incapable of sex because of erectile dysfunction or vaginal dryness presumes a narrow definition of sex, limited to penetrative intercourse. “It becomes more about exploring each other’s bodies in other ways that they find more intimate,” Malta told me.
Karen, a 69-year-old in New York City who asked to be identified by only her first name to protect her privacy, told me that sex is great at her age. She finds that men are more aware of women’s desires; if they can’t sustain erections, they’re more thoughtful and creative, and they compensate—often with oral sex. “They’re very willing to do whatever it takes,” she said. Suki Hanfling, a sex therapist and a co-author of Sexuality in Midlife and Beyond, told me that she knows lots of elderly people having great sex; she mentioned one who had her first orgasm at the age of 83.
This is a sharp contrast to what many women now in old age experienced earlier in life. “For a lot of older women, it was sex in bed with the lights off, their nightshirt pulled up, and it was about men’s pleasure,” Malta told me. Moreover, she said, older adults are freer now to explore the fluidity of attraction and gender. Some who have identified as heterosexual their whole life are trying out same-sex relationships that they previously thought of as off-limits.
So although lots of unmarried older people aren’t going on many dates, they aren’t all dissatisfied. Helen Fisher, a biological anthropologist at the Kinsey Institute who helps conduct the “Singles in America” study, told me about two questions they asked respondents in the 2012 iteration of the survey: How likely are you to pursue a committed relationship with someone who offers everything you are looking for in a relationship but whom you don’t find sexually attractive? And what about someone with whom you’re not in love? They found that the single people least likely to compromise on attractiveness and feelings were those 60 and older. Fisher’s hypothesis is that older adults are less desperate to find partners than they may have been at a younger age—because they wanted someone to raise children with, or because they felt a societal pressure to partner up.
Rhonda Lynn Way, the woman from Texas, has decided to pull back from dating for a while. “I don’t think there’s one love of your life,” she told me. “I think there’s love.” And she’s sharing love in all kinds of ways—reaching out to people in her community who seem like they need it, reminding her kids that she adores them, hosting spaghetti dinners for her Unitarian Universalist congregation. I asked her whether she was happy being single. “You come into this world by yourself, but somewhere along the line we get this idea that you’re part of a half,” she said. “You are whole all to yourself.”