Finding friendship (and maybe even love!) with Riverhead’s Senior Singles group

03/22/2015 2:00 PM |
Credit: Stock image

Credit: Stock image

The words stared up at Roger Smith from the newspaper page, beckoning him to attend a gathering for senior singles.

For several weeks, he resisted.

“I would check the singles events calendar,” said the 66-year-old Manorville resident. “But it’s difficult. I just really wasn’t making the effort.”

Making new friends, at any age, is not so easy. While many tend to think it is a challenge reserved especially for shy grade-schoolers and awkward teenagers, social insecurities can linger well beyond the uncomfortable formative years.

But the importance of staying socially engaged, especially for those over 50, cannot be stressed enough, according to researchers.

Seniors who enjoy a large network of friends and social interactions also have lower blood pressure, better memories, lower rates of depression and anxiety, a lower risk of Alzheimer’s and, by most accounts, live longer in general, according to one study from the University of Texas at Austin. Just three close relationships can enhance a person’s emotional and psychological well-being.

And participating in any kind of social encounter ­— a garden club, volunteer work, a painting class at a community college, lunch at a senior citizens’ center — can significantly improve a person’s happiness and longevity.

For seniors who are both retired and single, it can be particularly difficult to maintain social ties. Following the loss of a spouse, whether through death or divorce, many people tend to isolate themselves. They also discover just how dependent they had been on their loved one for socializing, but the thought of starting all over again can be daunting, according to Hal Spielman, an 86-year-old widower who is a sociologist turned dating coach.

“It’s easier for women to put themselves out there,” Spielman, who lives in Sands Point, told us. “Men tend to be more bashful and need more pushing. For either group, it takes work.”

Spielman recommends that family members push their widowed and divorced relatives — especially the men — to get out there and find a partner for social activities.

“It’s tough for men, but believe me, the ladies are gonna come after them,” he said. “There are 19 million singles over 55 in the U.S. — and the ratio is three women for every man. So if a man puts himself out there, there will be women who will make their presence known to him. They will even show up at his door with a casserole.”

Which brings us back to Roger Smith.

On a chilly Wednesday evening in January, the divorced father of two finally gave in. He arrived at Riverhead Free Library’s Senior Singles meeting not entirely sure what to expect, but simply hoping to meet some like-minded people.

“I may be 66 chronologically, but I’m really young at heart,” he said.

After retiring from his position as a high school science teacher, Smith has filled his time with just about every activity he can think of — from hiking to tennis, ballroom dancing and kickboxing.

Although he isn’t necessarily looking for a romantic partner, he’s always open to the possibility. He’s dabbled in online dating, which is quickly becoming one of the most popular avenues for seniors to find love. More people between the ages of 40 and 70 (36 percent) met their current partners online than those ages 18 to 40 (23 percent), according to a study by the Oxford Internet Institute in England.

“I was a member of match.com for a while and my profile is still on match and some of those free sites like plentyoffish.com and Zoosk,” he said. “That’s probably my best option. But I’m just hoping that I would actually meet somebody and we would click and we wouldn’t even have to go through any of that online stuff.”

This is the goal of the Senior Singles group, says director Laura La Sita, coordinator of senior citizen programs at Riverhead Free Library.

“We provide the structure for people to get together and we suggest trips and activities to them,” she says. “But they make their own connections and plans outside the group — they will call or email each other, set things up for themselves and form new friendships along the way.”

La Sita wants members to feel a sense of ownership over the club — unlike its earliest days, when she would arrange everything.

“I drove people to trips in my own car,” she said. “I made lasagna and turkey and brought all the food to all the meetings back then.”

Now, though, simple sign-up sheets announcing upcoming activities (like movies at Island 16 or dinner theater in Hampton Bays) greet seniors as they walk through the door. Members can also suggest their own ideas, as was the case recently with 74-year-old Maria Grzan, who announced that she wants to start up a bowling league and needs participants. Roger Smith, for one, is very excited to join.

Irene Lapidez, 81, of Riverhead said she attends the group because she hopes to make friends with people who are as active as she is. A retired commissioner for the Nassau County Department of Social Services and yoga teacher, Lapidez spends her free time as an usher at North Fork Community Theatre in Mattituck, helps to publish the Willow Ponds community newsletter and attends book club meetings at the library.

“You can meet some great people ­— just strike up a conversation and it can lead to other things,” Lapidez said. “If you don’t find you like it the first time, try a few times. There are new people coming to meetings all the time.”

And as for dating among the Senior Singles?

“We’re not necessarily a dating group,” La Sita said with a smile. “But we’ve got some success stories. Marriages have occurred as a result of people meeting here.”

This story was originally published in the 2015 edition of northforker’s 50 Plus magazine

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