Speed Dating Among the Senior Set

A Florida Community Center Helps Seniors Make a Match

Five Minutes: Speed daters at the Weisman Delray Community Center try to make small talk and a quick impression. One of the gents said: ‘In five minutes you’re not going to talk about Spinoza.’
Risa Demato
Five Minutes: Speed daters at the Weisman Delray Community Center try to make small talk and a quick impression. One of the gents said: ‘In five minutes you’re not going to talk about Spinoza.’

By Mary Jane Fine

Published June 21, 2011, issue of July 01, 2011.
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Matchmaker, matchmaker, make me a match.

And make it fast.

Risa Demato, site director for the Weisman Delray Community Center, heard the call and she answered it. Quickly. “A lot of people came to me and said, ‘You need to have a singles group,’” says Demato, who launched a weekly series of senior speed-dating events in March, with the help of Sherry Bernstein, a volunteer instructor for the center. “There are a lot of widowed people here, and they’re lonely and they want to meet other people.”

The majority of the center’s clients are older than 60, many are 70-plus. The bar scene is not an option. Nor were the regular singles discussion groups that drew upward of 120 people to mingle and chat – “too big, not intimate enough to really meet people,” Demato says. So she and Bernstein tossed around some ideas, one of which was speed-dating. It works for younger people, they figured, so why not for older ones?

Whether younger or older, the origins of speed-dating are credited to Los Angeles Rabbi Yaacov Deyo, who envisioned it as a way to help Jewish singles meet.

Delray’s center built its noontime speed-dating on the standard model. Demato and Bernstein agreed on the numbers: 10 men and 10 women each week; five minutes of chat per couple, then the men would shift to a new table. They agreed on a venue: the Card Room, a cozy setting with its dark hardwood floors, pale yellow and pale blue walls, panel of floor-to-ceiling windows and small wood-topped tables that hold floral centerpieces. A volunteer, Harvey Wallet, constructed wooden number-panels for the tables.

Getting people to sign up, at the registration desk or by phone, was easy. Finding enough men? Not so easy. On a given day, 50 women might sign up but only a dozen men.

“It’s not about attracting men,” Demato says. “It’s not that they’re scared to come. It’s about the statistics. I’ve always read that men often die first. It’s true. It’s about the percentages. So now Sherry and Harvey go to other singles groups and to the [retirement] communities…” “… looking for recruits,” interjects Millie Barasch, a Brooklyn native who has attended two sessions since her husband’s death a year ago, after 62 years of marriage.

“It wasn’t long enough,” she says of her marriage. And, no, she isn’t looking to marry again. “I’d like to have a friend, a male friend, a companion. I have lots of women friends. I’ll tell you the difference: A male friend will flatter you, take you out to dinner, pay the bill,” says Barasch, who exudes warmth and humor.

The allotted time before the bell signals “move on” is enough to learn what she needs to know. “It’s not how he looks,” she says. “It has a lot to do with presentation. Out of the 20 men I’ve met, I gave my phone number to one. ‘OK,’ I said, ‘we only have five minutes,’ so he started talking fast. I thought that was cute. He’s tall. He’s pleasant.”

One man asked if she cooks; she fibbed and said ‘no.’ Another, widowed just four months, began crying. One man wore leather slacks and a leather jacket open to the navel, a gold chai around his neck. She asked if his motorcycle were parked outside. But she’s still seeing the tall, pleasant man who got her phone number.

Gertrude Bial was volunteering at the center’s desk one Tuesday afternoon when she was asked to substitute for a no-show. One of the men she met during that speed-dating hour still calls her at least twice a day. He’s “a gentleman,” she says. And he’s the first man she’s dated since being widowed three years ago.

“I make it clear: no hanky-panky,” she says. “I’m not ready. But he likes to hold my hand; he can give me a kiss.”

A half-hour coffee-and-cookies nosh session follows each speed-dating event, allowing any potential connections to connect a bit longer. Senior speed-dating isn’t a universal. Not yet, anyway. But online stories from places as diverse as Berlin, Md., and Riverside, Cal., and Bergen County, N.J., showcase a number of success stories. And the proliferation of such events, plus online dating sites geared toward seniors (JDate has a 55-to-99 age category), is keeping pace with the country’s growing 65+ population: 35 million in 2000, more than 39 million in 2010, according to figures from the U.S. Census.

The Delray center’s Risa Demato recently shared her enthusiasm and experience on the subject with the JCC in Rochester, N.Y. “With great thanks for your time and endless insights into the world of speed dating for the senior crowd,” Steven Loring, a researcher who is documenting issues involved in the search for companionship and love among older adults, responded in an e-mail. “We’ll be pushing ahead up here in Rochester, hoping to launch this summer.”

Former Brooklyn-ite Myron “Mike” Raff, widowed 11 years now, tried a speed-dating event, not long ago, that wasn’t aimed at seniors. It was not a happy experience. “The young ladies were not interested, but they were too polite to say so,” he recalled. “This was better because it was more our age group.

“I’m a quiet person, basically, but face-to-face I can talk to the ladies. I can’t talk to them in a bar. (Here) I sat down, a woman sat next to me: ‘Where are you from? What did you do for a living.’ In five minutes, you’re not gonna talk about Spinoza.”

Contact Mary Jane Fine at feedback@forward.com

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