The bar at the Nest restaurant in Indian Wells is a sea of gray hair--hair that has been styled to dramatic heights and coiffed into thin comb-overs. Hair that has been immaculately groomed for maximum effect--that is, to attract the opposite sex.
Fifty is considered young at this desert watering hole, reputed to be something of a meat market for retirees, widowers, divorcees and the occasional stray husband or wife. Located in the heart of golf country, along Highway 111, the Nest is one of the only bars in town, and the drinks flow freely here as couples, many of whom have met for the first time that night, glide across the dance floor to Cole Porter and Elvis covers, hoping to make a friend, find a lover or meet their soul mate.
"A byproduct of a retirement community is that people are becoming single by natural causes," says Nest owner Ted Hane. "We're talking about people that have lost a loved one and then would like to reconnect with society after they've come through the mourning and the suffering."
Seniors re-entering the dating pool after losing a decades-long spouse through death or divorce have more options for meeting people these days. But they also face a range of physical issues, including the risk, like those in other age groups, of contracting sexually transmitted diseases.
There are emotional issues too, from trying to live up to memories of a new partner's past love to the woe that knows no age limit--heartbreak.
Holding its own against all that: the timeless, ageless lure of romance.
It used to be that churches were the main place a suddenly single senior could be on the lookout for love. But today, a growing number of active adult retirement communities, special interest social clubs and matchmaking Web sites are available, bringing together people of similar ages and increasing the odds of finding someone. Still, such hunting grounds aren't without their pitfalls.
Susan, a 70-year-old retired Bullocks saleswoman from L.A., has placed personal ads on five Web sites. She didn't know how to post pictures, so she enlisted her grandson for help. Hers is one of the few ads for women over 65 that have accompanying photos. Married 30 years and widowed for seven, her descriptor on the matchmaking Web site Match.com reads, "Looking for soul mate."
More than 30 men have responded to her mating call in the six months she's been placing ads, but none has swept her off her feet. The few who are her age "look like they should be in the grave" and the rest "have got a mother complex." Many of the men she's heard from are 25 to 45 years old.
"I just tell them they flatter me. Too bad you're not 20 years older," she said. To one particularly pesky suitor, she quipped, "I've got a son that's a couple years younger than you!"
Susan says she doesn't look or act her age, but she's hoping she'll hear from someone whose birth predates the Korean War--someone who shares her desire for "an all-around relationship, sex and everything."
An increasing number of seniors are finding camaraderie in adult communities. Sun City, an over-55 community in Palm Desert, is home to more than 53 social groups and a wide variety of sports, from golf to ballroom dance, bocce ball to fishing, aerobics to swimming.
The Solos, a Sun City singles club, meets in a local restaurant across the hall from a wide-screen TV and around the corner from a bank of pool tables. The crowd is overwhelmingly female. Sipping white wine and nibbling salads, few of the women are overt in their attempts to mingle with the opposite sex, preferring, instead, to talk among themselves about travel plans and their families.
One 88-year-old man who has just attended a Solos meeting said he doesn't feel there should be any "age bracket for sex." Until his partner died of cancer a few years ago, the man said he and his wife, who was 80, enjoyed a "very active" sex life. "The desire is still there. I just don't have a partner," he said. "The opportunity for finding the right partner should be in a place like this, where there are so many things to stay active."
Even those who happily live here sometimes look farther afield to find romance.
Don, a 66-year-old retired hotelier, has been living at Sun City for two years. He says he is sexually active but prefers to go to nearby Palm Springs to meet women at Gold's Gym and various restaurants and nightclubs.
But almost every afternoon, you can find him poolside, roasting his skin to a tawny brown in his green Speedo swimsuit. Few men, even half his age, would dare to wear such a thing, but Don not only wears one--he looks good in it. With a full head of gray-blond hair and a megawatt smile, Don is, understandably, a catch.
"He's a hot one--and he can drive at night," said a woman seated nearby under a pool umbrella.
Sexual drive lasting into the later decades of life is no myth--and certainly not rare.