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."
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.
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."
Read the rest of this story at The Kernel.