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Interviews with news makers and discussion of topics important to Southwest Michigan. Subscribe to the podcast through Apple itunes and Google. Segments of interview are heard in WestSouthwest Brief during Morning Edition and All Things Considered

Not Just Love or Sex, But Companionship: Over-50 Speed Dating

Earlene McMichael | WMUK

Having a strong social network has a positive effect on the health of senior citizens. But here's the thing: Finding a partner and friends can be tougher for older adults. 

HEAR FULL SHOW: Listen Now - WestSouthwest Aug. 10, 2017

Credit Earlene McMichael | WMUK
The ringing of a bell signals time to switch partners at the Portage Senior Center's Older Adult Speed Dating event on July 17.

Tammy, a Kalamazoo-area woman, has been searching for that special someone for a long time.  

“I'm 65. I am divorced, and I have been on my own for about 18 years," she says. "I've had some dates in between." But nothing turned serious. 

When you're married that many years as long as I've been, you figure you're never going to find love again because it's too big of a loss - Gordon, 78

She’s even tried a matchmaking service. "It’s a paid service, where they do a background check and everything… It’s been three or four years since I signed up with them, and they never really got any matches for me.”

Gordon is a 78-year-old man from Portage. He says it’s been hard to move on after the death of his wife of over a half century. She died three years ago.

He has taken a few women out to lunch since her death, but he says he wouldn't call that dating.  

“When you’re married that many years as long as I’ve been, you figure you’re never going to find love again because it’s too big of a loss," he explains, pausing, his voice beginning to crack.

"And to try to overcome that loss is a difficult thing to do.”

Playing cupid: Speed dating

Kim Phillips manages the Portage Senior Center. She's heard similar stories from older adults as they seek to re-enter the dating world.

Credit Earlene McMichael | WMUK
As candles flickered about the room, singles get acquainted at cozy, round tables at a speed dating event sponsored by the Portage Senior Center.

So in July the senior center started offering its first ever speed dating events to address the social isolation some older adults feel. There's ones for people aged 50 to 65; another for those 65 and up. The response from women has been especially robust, resulting in waiting lists and, ultimately, more sessions added.

It's only been a few weeks since launching, but speed dating has already led to some older adults no longer having to spend their days alone.

"We got a call from a gentleman who was at the first speed dating event on (July) 17th, who said he has made a connection with a woman that night," Phillips says. "They have been seeing each other practically every day, and they're happy. He said he almost didn't show up to the event. He was so nervous in the parking lot."

What was originally supposed to be a handful of speed dating events will now be many ones offered several times a year on either an every-other-month or quarterly basis, officials say.

You don't have an expiration date. People still want to be social, to make connections and have relationships - Kim Phillips, senior center manager

'Perks them up a lot'

According to the U.S. Census, 14 percent of Kalamazoo County's 250,000-plus residents were over age 65 in 2015. That's more than 35,000 people. The local Area on Aging expects this figure to grow significantly.

Phillips says the agency projects 80 percent more people over age 60 in Kalamazoo County by the year 2030.

She says older adults desire companionship, friendship and love, just like anyone else. "You don’t have an expiration date," she says. "People still want to be social, to make connections and have relationships.”

SPECIAL REPORT - Part 2: Interview with Portage Senior Center Manager Kim Phillips about how the speed dating project started, over-50 sex & companionship

And the benefits to well-being and health from being connected to others are immense.

Credit Earlene McMichael | WMUK
Kim Phillips, Portage Senior Center manager, keeps time on her cell phone so she knows when singles must switch at the center's first speed dating event held on July 17. This served the 65 and up group, but another is for ages 50 to 65.

That’s according to Cassidy Ardelean, the marketing manager at New Friends Memory Care and Assisted Living in Kalamazoo, where 60 seniors live.

“We have people that have been living on their own and don’t get hardly any socialization. And then when they come live us and you get all that community and the support and relationship-building, you make friendships," Ardelean says.

"They actually seem to kind of blossom, come out of their shell. Health gets better. They have something to look forward to every day, so it really brings them out of their shell and perks them up a lot.” 

Loneliness, isolation harms

In 2011, 29 percent of Kalamazoo County seniors surveyed felt lonely or isolated - Kalamazoo County Senior Growth Needs Assessment

A 2011 survey of 350 seniors living in Kalamazoo County showed 29 percent of them reported feeling lonely or isolated. Thirty-three percent said they were depressed. The results were part of the Kalamazoo County Senior Growth Needs Assessment.

In Michigan, 28 percent of people over 65 live by themselves, according to the Census.

Inspired by a film

The Portage Senior Center got the idea to do speed dating from the 2014 documentary “The Age of Love,” a funny yet serious film about seniors participating in such an event in upstate N.Y.

Credit Earlene McMichael | WMUK
Speed daters use a form to indicate who they'd like to see again. This is the scorecard the men complete.

In anticipation of launching speed dating here and with funding from New Friends Memory Care and Assisted Living, center officials presented a free showing of “Age of Love” at Celebration! Cinema at the Crossroads mall on June 5. Portage Senior Center Manager Kim Phillips says they were not sure what to expect.

As the RSVPs rolled in, it became clear that the topic of seniors and love was striking a cord. Two hundred sixty people pre-registered. It was around the time that the box-office-busting movie "Wonder Woman" opened. 

“They actually shifted us into another (larger room in the) theater," says Phillips, in awe of how supportive area businesses and nonprofits have been. "They traded us with ‘Wonder Woman’ because our numbers were higher.”

It's showtime

Many of the men were ready to date, ready to find that woman to be with - Gretta Jenkins, Senior Center staff

A month later, on a sunny Monday in July, theSenior Center put on its inaugural speed dating event in a private dining-room at Jac’s Cekola’s Pizza restaurant in Portage, which the owners are letting it use at no cost.

The first to arrive for the 4:30 p.m. check-in time are the men.

“Many of the men were ready to date, ready to find that woman to be with," remarks Gretta Jenkins, Senior Center afternoon receptionist, as the event gets into full swing.

Twelve men and 12 women aged 65 and higher sit for conversation at cozy, round tables, adorned with fresh flowers. Candles flickered everywhere.

Every five minutes, a bell rings, signaling that it is time to switch.

Gordon, the 78-year-old widower, is there. So is Tammy, the 65-year-old who had the disappointing experience with a matchmaking service.

'Was enjoyable'

I think that it is a good way to get out and try to make a connection with somebody, to make a new friend - Tammy, 65

At the end of the evening, participants turn in a scorecard, indicating either “Yes” or “No” as to whether they wish to see any of their dates again.

Tammy says she met four strong candidates, and two "maybes."

"I’ve always been curious about speed dating. I think that it is a good way to get out and try to make a connection with somebody, to make a new friend," she says. "At 65, it’s hard to meet people. You go to church and you see the same people every week. I thought that it was fabulous that the senior center did this for us.”

Gordon marked “Yes” for all 12 women.

He says "the fact that the evenings and days are long and boring” is what brought him out.

It’s Gordon's sincere hope that he will gain a companion, but, if nothing else, some new friends.

“It was enjoyable," he says. "Something new, and I haven’t done anything like that before.”

COMING UP: The next speed dating session is Monday, Aug. 21. For contact info and more, visit Portage Senior Center's Facebook page.