Heartbreak isn’t the exclusive territory of the young. By the time we reach 55 and beyond, death and divorce sees isolation and a fear of growing old alone, become a very real possibility.
Many Baby Boomers were still very young when they married and had children so never gave much thought to what they really wanted and needed from their partner.
For some, if it was a friend, they would have dumped them long since, but instead they stay in the marriage and at well past middle age, find themselves growing old unhappily – or alone.
In fact, the rate of divorce among those over 50 has doubled in the past 20 years, so much so that the term “grey divorce” has been coined.
As we head into the festive season, many widowers, widows and divorcees who might otherwise happily get on with life, will become acutely aware that they are now alone and not part of a couple.
So, what to do about it.
Unlike the optimism of youth, when a night out on the town could change your fortunes and you’ve got your whole life ahead of you to find a partner and settle down, by this age social networks and activities are generally more restricted.
The clubs we visit are for more genteel pursuits than “clubbing” on a Saturday night.
Networks created at the school gate or following children’s activities have also closed and a workplace romance is fraught with the danger of losing a job as well as a relationship.
“It’s just hard to meet someone as I seldom go out by myself or if I do, I go with the girls. There’s nothing romantic about that,” says 58-year-old Karen.
“The only men I meet are at work and there’s nothing romantic about that either.”
When it comes to looking for love, there are essentially three choices, says matchmaker Linda Prescott, director of Ideal Introductions who has been bringing people together for more than 25 years. About 40 per cent of her clients are aged 55+.
The first is to get out and meet people through clubs and organisations from bowls, golf and tennis to bridge, chess and quiz nights; art and craft to fitness and line dancing; history research to volunteering at meals on wheels.
The special interests are already established so there is immediately something in common and the chances of meeting someone are up there with the dance halls and picture theatres of youthful courting.
There are also websites such as Meetup (meetup.com) which list plenty of groups to browse and join in activities with like-minded others.
It might be for dinner parties, lunch, hiking or the cinema, but it is a chance to do what you want with others of a similar vintage.
Travel companies are also increasingly responding to the Baby Boomer solo traveller, recognising it as a growing market.
Since this is a more social and independent option, it’s not a ticket to a relationship but at least it’s company.
The second option, online dating, moves into the more serious “I’m looking for a partner” territory.
There are now a number of websites specifically targeting the age group, such as olderdatingonline.com.
Like other online dating sites such as RSVP.com and eharmony.com.au, participants register for a reasonable fee, list their background and interests and search the faces and profiles for one they hope might work for them.
Contact is made via the internet and a place and time agreed for a meeting, usually a coffee. This can be harrowing.
“Usually you know straight away if it’s going to work,” says 64-year-old Joy. “I had some interesting – even ghastly – experiences.
“It’s a good idea to let a girlfriend know in advance to give you a quick phone call so you can exit the meeting gracefully if the person you are meeting for the first time is not what they said they were or clearly not your type.
“Sometimes it can take a second meeting – maybe a casual dinner to work this out – but always choose a public place and take your own transport.
“One man I met seemed lovely at first but the dinner date proved that he obviously had alcohol problems. I was able to make a fast exit from that particular catastrophe in my own car.”
Ms Prescott also has a word of warning.
“Make sure you are super careful about what you do.
“Choose a reputable website recommended by friends or family and if someone’s profile looks too good to be true, it probably is,” she says.
“Statistically, about 20 per cent of people who go online are already in relationships and are looking for sex, while 64 per cent lie about their profile.
“Some find they are getting the attention they have wanted for a long time, love the compliments and romance and take the bait – ‘give me money so I can come and see you because I think I’m in love with you’.”
Ms Prescott says romance scams on online sites and chatrooms claim about $20 million a year, mainly from mature women, but that amount is probably much more because a lot are too embarrassed to admit it.
“You can be vulnerable so I would be asking my kids what they think about it,” she says.
Remember, it is a virtual world and a liaison can be as dangerous as meeting a stranger behind a Fortitude Valley nightclub at 2am.
University of Canberra researcher Nigel Phair warns scammers are cunning.
“They set up fake profiles on dating sites and use emotional manipulation to extract personal details, money and gifts,” he says.
“Typically they work hard to gain a victim’s trust over the first few weeks and months before requesting money to help a sick relative, visit a dying mother a last time or undertake urgent medical treatment.”
But online dating doesn’t have to be all about being flat broke and nursing a broken heart.
On the last roll of the dice, Joy met the right man and has lived happily ever after for the past decade, despite her early misgivings and dramas.
The third option for finding a partner is getting very serious indeed.
The personal introduction is Ms Prescott’s specialty and is for those who are definitely committed to finding a new partner.
“It’s an easy process if you want to find someone to spend the rest of your life with, as the agency acts as a filter,” she says.
She first chats to clients to determine “if your head is in the right place for dating and secondly, to make sure your expectations are realistic.”
And she stresses that it is important to manage expectations in a new relationship.
“When you are 70 or 80, your partner is not going to be fantastic looking. The important thing is that they are your friend,” she says. “You are never going to find perfect, so aim for 70 per cent.”
She has an extensive database and comes up with some likely “matches” to “reduce the dating pool”.
If a client decides to proceed, Ms Prescott makes the introduction and they have a choice on whether to meet. There is some certainty to this too.
“She knows that he will phone and he knows that she will say yes,” she says.
“The call is about organising a meeting and knowing they will get along.”
After the first date, each person gives feedback.
“Men don’t date well and women have high expectations,” she says. “I can coach men about dating skills, but women know what they want in a partner so I help them manage their expectations.
“Women will say they will pick better this time and think logically, but they will go into every little detail such as what clothes he wore and the colour of his shoes, so I tell them to relax and not sweat the small stuff.”
Men tend to talk about themselves a lot and women find that rude, so her feedback will be that that’s a man thing to do and to take it as a compliment.
Ms Prescott said a lot of people are nervous, so they don’t show who they really are on a first date.
“The beginning of a relationship is managed,” she says.
There are a lot more women than men on her database, she believes because after a relationship breaks down, men tend to “go into their man cave and hide”.
“Widowers, on the other hand, need someone straight away – he has had a good relationship and he misses it,” she says. “If a man comes in who is in his 60s or 70s we can have him in a relationship within six weeks.”
On the other hand, women over 55 are often more independent and financially secure so their wish list has grown bigger.
And some final advice from the Matchmaker: “Put yourself out there. Dating is getting out of your comfort zone.
“Don’t be afraid to get out and date. Take off the blinkers and remember, there is a lid for every pot.”
And there is a fourth option of course, and that is to enjoy the single life doing everything you want to do when you want to do it without having to consult a partner.
Tips to avoid an online dating scam
• Maintain a healthy level of suspicion.
• Never think it can’t happen to you.
• Think with your head and not your heart.
• Talk to a trusted friend or relative before sending them anything.
• Never give your credit card or bank details by email.
• Don’t give away too much personal information too quickly.
• Don’t fall for the flattery and declarations of love.
• Run a mile if they ask for financial help.
What to call the new person in your life
Let’s face it, it’s hard enough to admit to “dating” when you are past 55, much less refer to having a “boyfriend” or a “girlfriend”.
“Partner” seems to carry a lot of commitment, as though it’s “we’re together for life but we are not married”.
“De facto” is just plain awful.
The teenager’s use of BF is for, well, teenagers. On the other hand, suitor is too old-fashioned, “soulmate” implies forever and hardly makes an introduction: “Hi, I’d like you to meet my new soulmate”.
“Lover” is too explicit and once again, makes a lousy introductory line, especially to an aged relative: “Hi Aunty Flo, this is Bill, my new lover”.
“Friend” simply isn’t strong enough as by this age we do in fact have a lot of friends.
And a “special friend” could have connotations.
So what is it?
Ideas and comments welcome. Email firstname.lastname@example.org