St. Petersburg Times Online: Business

Weather | Sports | Forums | Comics | Classifieds | Calendar | Movies

Love just an e-mail away for seniors

Friendships blossom. Matches are made. And a new generation of Internet surfers rides the wave.

By ADRIENNE P. SAMUELS

© St. Petersburg Times, published July 28, 2002


Friendships blossom. Matches are made. And a new generation of Internet surfers rides the wave.

Mary O'Grady once told a man she was 65 when she was really 70.

It's an easy thing to say when one is surfing the Internet for a date.

It's also something that didn't bother Lee Wheatley one bit.

"I said to her, "I told you wrong too, because I'm 76,' " Wheatley said. "That's about the only fib we told each other. A lot of people cheat on their age, but when you're 70 or 75 it doesn't make that much difference."

This new couple met online. And they're not the only ones, according to Internet-based dating services and scholars who study senior issues.

It shouldn't come as a surprise, said Joan Spainhower, with the Florida Department of Elder Affairs.

"The fastest growing population of folks using the Internet are people over the age of 50," she said. "Once they get over their initial fear, they're into it. The Internet is a perfect example of where these folks can connect."

Just ask Wheatley and O'Grady, who met last September via the love section of the America Online network and shortly after had their first "in real life" encounter at Lenny's restaurant on U.S. 19 in Clearwater.

Over coffee and French toast, they took 45 minutes to get to know each other better and have been inseparable ever since.

Both are widowed and say it was difficult to decide to use the Internet to find companionship. O'Grady was prompted to post her profile by the friend of one of her four children.

"The first four years after my husband died, I had no interest," said O'Grady, 71, of Largo. "But as time went on I thought it'd be nice to have someone to go out to dinner with, someone to travel with."

Wheatley, now 77, agreed.

"I tried to get on chat a few times, but I'm such a slow typer that I couldn't keep up," said the East Lake resident. "I'm from the old school, if you meet them, meet them face to face. I saw her nice profile, and I e-mailed her."

Now the two are "going steady" and have already said the "L-word" to each other. O'Grady has met a few of Wheatley's nine children and in a few months, the two will travel to Boston to meet O'Grady's brood. Plus, they just returned from a trip to Alaska.

America Online, an Internet service provider, hosts the love channel where O'Grady and Wheatley met. AOL estimates its service has sparked at least 10,000 marriages over the years, many among the elderly.

Most of the older couples meet through personal ads or through alumni and bereavement chatrooms, said Regina Lewis, an AOL online adviser and author of the book Wired in a Week.

"I've seen some of those e-mails and they're fascinating," Lewis said. "The overall pool is larger, if you will. . . . The phenomenon is people wanting to meet other people. It's people doing what they've always done, except online."

Seniors are often reluctant to start surfing and many of them are encouraged by a grandchild or friend who is already using e-mail, said Ara Rogers, director of senior programs at the University of South Florida's Institute of Aging.

As a result, Rogers' introductory classes on using computers and the Internet are often full. The university partners with SeniorNet, an online Web site with paid membership that encourages seniors to use the Internet to enrich their lives. The institute sees up to 700 seniors per class quarter and also offers classes in St. Petersburg.

"Our popularity is a bit of a problem," Rogers said. "We were turning people away and having to enroll people in a lottery."

Many senior surfers got their first computer as a hand-me-down from a grown child and many at first say they are too old to learn something new, Rogers said.

But everyone agrees that once you learn to use the Internet, it becomes like second nature.

"They kept telling me, "Dad, you've got to get a computer,' " Wheatley said. "One of my daughters came in one afternoon carrying it in and showed me a little bit about it. I played with it for six months, liked it and got a better one."

O'Grady and Wheatley both spent more than $1,000 on their high-end equipment and custom-built computers. Their conversation is sprinkled with discussions about needing a new keyboard or rebooting the system. They freely talk about their marriages and the loss of their better half.

Still, dating at 71 is different from dating at 21, O'Grady said.

"As you get older, you start looking for something different," said the Boston native. "(You look for) companionship, sharing, time and interest. You need a great sense of humor and health is important."

Wheatley, a retired fire chief for the St. Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport, hails from Louisville. He never thought he'd end up dating a gal from the Northeast.

"She didn't even know where Kentucky was until I showed her on the map," Wheatley jokes.

Still, other seniors are cautious about using the Internet to make new friends.

Arlene Brehmer, 75, teaches computer classes at the Dunedin Library and shies away from online friendships.

"I tried the chat and all that," Brehmer said. "You just don't know who you're talking to. It got to where people want to be friendly and I backed off at that point."

Match.com is another Web site that allows people to search for companions. It doesn't make the search any easier, the site cautions.

"Fate may have in some way contributed to bringing these people together, but the core component of a relationship is good old-fashioned hard work," said spokeswoman Trish McDermott.

"There's nothing else in our life that we believe should just happen to us besides finding love. We don't wait for that right job to find us. Our research tells us the people that actively search for dates are the most likely to have dates. Online dating allows you to get back into the game."

The game does have drawbacks, O'Grady acknowledges. You shouldn't readily hand out your telephone number and it's best to learn how a person treats their children and grandchildren, she said. AOL suggests meeting for a short first date during the day in a public place rather than an all-day outing. And if you feel uncomfortable, feel free to never talk to or e-mail the person again.

If both people are looking for companionship rather than a "nurse with a purse," the relationship will do fine, said Wheatley, who is still awestruck over his luck.

"If you had told me four years ago that I'd meet a lady on the Internet, I couldn't begin to believe it," said Wheatley, who is a World War II veteran.

They don't know yet if this relationship will lead to marriage, but it is a possibility.

"It's been less than a year," O'Grady said. "It would be a big change and a big move, but I know I'm not going to let him get away."

-- Adrienne Samuels can be reached at 445-4157 or samuels@sptimes.com.

© Copyright, St. Petersburg Times. All rights reserved.