By Raphaela Fischer
Nov. 11th, 2008
It was mid-December when they first decided to meet for lunch at O’Connell’s, an Irish pub in Old Town, Alexandria. Joe Mallonee arrived thirty minutes early and secured a table at a strategic spot where he could watch whoever came in. When a slender blonde woman in a black Cashmere sweater bejeweled with gold, walked in, he immediately recognized her. His date’s name was Fran Tracy “who looked a bit more beautiful in person than in her own profile picture.”
Three hours and two untouched meals later, they talked about nearly everything: her divorce, his deceased wife and their children. When it was time to say goodbye, they lingered at the restaurant’s door. He looked at her, slightly bent over, and asked if he could have a kiss. She didn’t mind. So he held her face and gently kissed her lips. She returned the kiss with a little more juice. From that moment it was obvious sparks were flying and a connection was born.
Like millions of Americans who took a second chance at love that connection was not a random one but a calculated match made in cyberspace.
“We just clicked,” Tracy said recalling the first date with “e-harmony boy” one afternoon in her luxurious townhouse that enjoyed a spectacular view over the Potomac River in Alexandria. “It was then and there that we decided to see each other again. We immediately became friends.”
Fran Tracy is “in her sixties” and works as a real-estate agent. Joe Mallonee, 64, is a retired electrical engineer from Charles Town, W.Va. Despite the 70 mile hike each rendezvous, they are both head over heels in love.
This couple’s late-life romance is not all that unusual among the “grey-haired generation.” With an 18-year increase in Americans’ life expectancy, mostly spent in healthy retired living, and with more than a third of Americans over 50 being divorced, widowed, separated or perpetual bachelors, according to a 2006 statistics from the U.S. Census Bureau, seniors are increasingly flocking to online dating sites with more traffic than ever. The twist, however, is that they are going high-tech while doing so.
A generation ago, romance among the elderly was broadly ridiculed. “There was a sense that when you hit mid 40’s and 50’s, that your emotional life was done,” said Pepper Schwarz, a sociology professor at the University of Washington in Seattle and the relationship expert for PerfectMatch.com.
Seniors, according to Schwarz, were reduced to one role as “grandmothers and grandfathers who take care of the next generation and their issues rather than their own.” Those who did consider finding love at an older age were thought of as unwise or foolish.
“Today older people are joining the game,” she said. “They are embracing their sexuality, and that’s because the stigma of finding somebody at an older age has dropped off.”
Not wanting to feel like a “third wheel” and with no other alternatives, the baby-boomer generation is thrown back into the dating world. Except this time their hopes lie in “technological match-making.”
Deborah Macmillan, 55, a semi-retired business-woman from Fairhope, Ala. admits to being one of those people who scoffed at online dating. When her ex-husband met his future wife online, she recalled, “we all made fun of him.” Ten years later, with some encouragement from her children and friends, she became a full-fledged convert.
“It is good for your ego,” Macmillan said, who joined match.com a little over a year ago, “all of sudden you got three hundred men all calling and emailing you. It’s like pick and choose.”
In the case of Tracy and Mallonee, Tracy was the one who made the first move. Having just moved to Alexandria with no acquaintances in town, she needed a friend or a companion. But what she really desired was a man. “A real man.” That’s when she decided to search in the myriad of single men online until she stumbled upon his profile.
Open-minded and honest. Check. Loves life. Check. Loves golfing, sailing, traveling, hiking, and enjoys art. Check. Check. Check. Check. And Check. He was the man.
“I contacted Joe,” she said with a broad grin, “but he immediately became the aggressor.”
Mallonee’s children had encouraged him to resume his social and romantic life after grieving over his “beloved wife” who died of multiple sclerosis two years before. It was time to slowly dip his toes into the dating pool. The fish he found was quite a catch.
“I sensed her zeal for life that brought me to her,” Mallonee said, “that’s how I singled out Fran from all the other profiles.”
According to Nielsen/ Net ratings, Match.com ranks second after Yahoo! Personals with 15 million members globally. The company was successful in the 50 plus population with 15 percent of its members in this group, making the period from 2000-2006 its all time zenith since its launch in April 1995. Today, the numbers have exceeded expectations again. Their most diverse demographic is the senior group which accounts for twenty percent of its users.
“Not only do our fifty plus members remain the fastest growing segment on the Match.com set,” explained John Walls, public relations expert at Match.com, “but they are also our most loyal members.”
Their experts have observed that the membership length is a year, whereas the senior group extends their membership to about eighteen months.
“I think this generation has gone through more changes than any other generation in history,” Paul Falzone, CEO of eLove.com said, indicating how seniors are more comfortable looking for companionship online.
John Balestra, 56, an electrical contractor in Youngstown, Ohio, met his partner on match.com after finalizing his divorce. “She is just a person I do things with,” he said. “We go places and watch movies together.”
No more friend referrals or waiting on barstools in hopes of finding the one, or anyone. The internet proves to be a superior source to old school tactics and has made finding a partner a lot easier.
“What’s happening now is quite unprecedented,” said Mark Brooks, a consultant and editor of a newsletter at Onlinepersonalswatch.com tracks the internet-dating industry, “experts are teaming up with dating sites for better understanding on how personalities are compatible.”
PerfectMatch.com has a sociology expert, while e-harmony.com is led by a clinical psychologist. Thus, matching is based on complimentary traits.
CEO’s in the online dating industry, like Falzone of eLove.com, hire the kind of people with “W.I.T. whatever it takes” skills. For him, PhD’s and psychologists lack the personality needed for this industry. “I want people working for me who love people and who really want to help them.”
For Mallonee, who spent part of his career developing artificial intelligence systems, was intrigued when he saw the e-harmony advertisement on television which relied on the Expert System, another subset of the systems he worked on.
“I had to test their system,” he said, “and as an engineer, I was very impressed.”
According to a current forecast by Jupiter research, online dating sites have been quite successful. Last year, the dating industry made $889 million in global net. By 2012, their analysts predict a significant growth which will reach up to $1.9 billion.
“There is a very significant trend going on,” Brooks said, “which is counterintuitive.”
In 2005 many experts predicted the next year to be a major “downer” because of its competition with social networking sites like Facebook and MySpace. They, however, realized that they were more profitable today.
The reason, Brooks believed, is because the dating industries have modified their advertisements to be more alluring to the baby-boomer demographic “who will pay, pay more, and pay more often.”
With this notion in mind, Steve Pammenter, the managing director of White Label Dating whose company powers 2000 dating sites, 25 of which focus on the over-50 niche market, is working on revolutionizing the online dating experience.
“We want to be a one-stop shop for online daters,” he said, “so they can get everything they want from one site and wrap it all up in one simple package.”
This simple package already includes features by which users can chat, update “online dairies”, send virtual gifts, and zodiac matching. But, what’s really hot right now is video profile, where members can see and hear their matches. They recently also added the “Dating on the Move” or “Mobile Dating” which sends “love alerts” to its members when someone they’re interested in has logged on.
Currently, members 50 and over comprise 35 percent of the company’s overall member database. According to Pammenter, both the percentage and actual numbers have “grown considerably” in the last five years.
For Macmillan, the Fairhope gal, that only meant having more fun with lots of adolescent energy in stored.
“I’m a match.com slut,” she remembered saying one day driving home from three dates with three different guys. “Coffee in the morning with guy number one, go shopping, then lunch with guy number two, go shopping, then dinner with guy number three, go home.”
For Mallonee and Tracy, it meant “sex is better than it ever has been in [their] entire life.” “We are always finding things out about each other and always enjoying each other,” Tracy chuckled. “By the way, that is quite a gift for a woman of eighty five.”
“By the way,” Mallonee, looking amused, interrupted her, “I think I do know how old you are. She is older than me.” And they both broke into laughter. To them, age is just a number.
- Update on the couple's status: Since this article has been written, Fran Tracy and Joe Mallonee are now officially engaged to be married.
About the author: Raphaela Fischer is graduate student of journalism at Georgetown University.