ROCKVILLE – When Joan Fox, 84, went on her first date in 1938, she and her beau, a boy who sang in choir with her, went to the movies with her brother because it just wasn’t proper for a young girl to be out at night alone with a boy.
Now nearly seven decades later, Fox is dating again, and last Wednesday’s version of the courting ritual consisted of four minutes each with multiple strangers at gray, laminate tables at the Rockville Senior Center.
It was the area’s first “Senior Speed Dating” event, and less of a cultural clash than one might think.
Maryland’s population of 65-and-older citizens is expected to grow by a whopping 106 percent by the year 2030, the U.S. Census Bureau reported in 2005, and they are a population that could benefit both from more social contact and a streamlined version of hooking up, experts say.
Speed dating originated in the late 1990s in Los Angeles as a way for Jewish men and women to meet and marry in as efficient a way as possible, but it’s long since lost its religious affiliation.
Yet its practice is still geared toward 24- to 40-year-olds.
However, senior centers have recently picked up on the idea as an ideal way for their residents to meet new friends, and maybe even a new love.
A “traditional” script doesn’t work anymore, said Linda Waite, director of the Center on Demography and Economics of Aging at the University of Chicago and a grantee of the National Institute on Aging in Bethesda.
When people are young, they’re in school, (and) school and grad school act as really dating services . . . When you’re older, it’s not as easy. There’s no mechanism to do that,” she said. That’s where speed dating comes in.
Variations in the method of speed dating exist, but typically men and women sit across a table for four minutes with a pre-formulated list of “get-to-know-you” questions.
When the bell rings marking the end of the time period, participants privately place a check mark next to the other person’s name if the “date” went well. At the end of the session, staff match the forms of those who checked each other, and pass along their contact information.
It’s a far cry from the conservative dating rules of the 1950s, Waite said.
“The world has changed,” she said. “The attitudes of the time – no sex before marriage, marrying young, child-bearing young, women waiting for men to express an interest – certainly they’re not the current set of rules.”
Children and grandchildren raised on the Internet are keeping their loved ones in the loop.
“My daughter threatened me into coming,” laughed Fox, one of 28 seniors at the Rockville event.
Lorraine Schak, senior social services coordinator at the center, said many of the seniors came “just to tell their grandkids they tried it…it ties generations together.”
Speed dating is just one of the modern ventures younger generations introduce to their grandparents.
David L’Heureux, 78, who sported a tweed suit and slicked back white hair, was one of many suitors who has tried his hand at online dating as well.
“I tried the Internet stuff, but there was nothing there,” he said, “I’m probably over-qualified.”
According to a survey taken by the Pew Internet and American Life Project in 2006, 34 percent of the 65 and older age group log on to the Internet.
Online dating Web sites have seen an increase in the number of senior visitors from January 2006 to January 2007 of 29 percent, or 623,000 additional unique users, according to Nielsen/NetRatings.
This trend can be misleading, however, for as the Pew study cites, “most of the growth in this group over the last few years has come from long-time Internet users in their early 60s aging into senior status. There is little evidence that many non-users in their 70s and 80s are suddenly getting the Internet bug.”
Online dating expert Virginia Vitzthum, author of “I Love You, Lets Meet: Adventures in Online Dating,” said the online format offers a perfect venue for seniors to meet too.
“Older people know what they want and can say that without playing the game that younger people play … the pace is nice too. Even if you’re not terribly mobile, it’s great because you can set up the dates from computers.”
As for Fox, she may have had fun at speed dating, but she’s not about to give up writing letters for e-mail.
“I like the direct method better.”