Illustrations by Gauri Elisa Meneghetti
Relationships 12 May 2024 10 MIN

The brave new world of senior dating

These Nanas and Nanis have game—and they’re taking it out of the park

It’s 4 pm on a Sunday and I’m at a singles’ mixer at a restaurant in Mumbai’s Lower Parel. Standing at the bar, sipping my Chardonnay, I count close to 50 people in the room. Some have come to find love for the first time, some are getting back out there after a divorce or losing their spouse, some just want company for an evening out. The conversations swirling around me range from retirement plans to being too old to birth children to managing cholesterol levels. It’s not your usual get-to-know-you talk. But then, this is not your usual mixer—it’s specifically for people between 45 and 60 years old.  

Next to me, a woman wearing a kurti and pants, her hair in a neat bob, orders a margarita. She doesn’t seem to be in a rush to socialise in a group, so the two of us hang out at the bar. Asha Makhija, it turns out, is in her mid-50s. An operations head at a tech firm, she’s been divorced for 10 years. Her daughter has been encouraging her to go out and meet new men; she’s chickened out of two mixers before, but decided to brave this one. “I’m not keen to marry again. I just want some companionship, someone to go out to dinner and movies with,” she explains. I ask if she’s ever tried dating apps. “Oh god no! I’m old-school—I like to be wined and dined—and these apps seem like they’re mostly for hookups.” She’s a bit shy and unsure of how to approach the men here, so I tell her to just point out who she wants to chat with and I’ll be her wingwoman. 

Dating at any age is stressful. The fear of rejection, the irritation when someone asks you out last minute, leading you to wonder obsessively if you’re just a backup plan, the PhD-level analysis of text messages, the app fatigue, the idle swiping with no intention to chat, the eyeroll when you get identically horrible pickup lines from too many options, the forced laughter when you’re on a boring date, but don’t want to be rude—it’s exhausting even for me, and I’m in my late 30s. But doing all of that when you’re older? So much harder.

First, it takes a lot more effort to get out of one’s comfort zone and meet new people. Second, India has never really had a culture of dating, and when apps like Tinder, Hinge, OkCupid, and Bumble flooded the Indian market, their target user was much younger. Meanwhile, social mores around dating, remarrying, and live-in partnerships have changed to some extent, especially in urban India. What this means is that while there are more options for people of all ages to date, many older people just don’t know how to do it. And who can blame them? Now they have to be tech-savvy, they have to know when to use the eggplant emoji, and they have to learn what fwbbreadcrumbing, and ghosting mean. It’s a veritable minefield.  

That doesn’t seem to be stopping them, though. Snehil Khanor, founder and CEO of TrulyMadly, says the app has “recently seen an uptick in the elderly signing up, especially post Covid. Before the pandemic, less than 2 per cent of the app’s users were in the 50+ age group, but now they’re approaching 6 per cent.” In fact, he says, the app’s oldest active member is an 82-year-old man from Surat. Matchmaker Paulomee Mehra, who co-founded Singular Social, the company that organised the Mumbai mixer, has noticed an increase in the number of seniors looking for partners over the last five years. She, too, points to the post-pandemic fear of being alone as a catalyst, and says that the growth in the senior demographic is so marked that Singular Social plans to curate a number of events tailored exclusively for this cohort.  

But what are older singles looking for? And how are they navigating the current dating landscape? 

Men like apps, women prefer mixers 

Rewind to the weeks prior to the Singular Social mixer, when I interview a number of singles in their 50s and 60s. Interestingly, not even one of them, whether divorced, widowed, or single, is particularly keen to get married. What they all want is a long-term companion, maybe even a live-in partner. 

Pune-based Vivek Arora, who owns a luxury interiors company, is in Mumbai for a couple of days. We meet at a café in Versova. Tall, with just a touch of grey at his temples, he’s wearing a button-down shirt and jeans, and has, I think, the confidence of a veteran dater. My hunch turns out to be right. He’s been divorced for two decades and has no interest in a second wife, but would like someone to travel with. The 53-year-old has been active on dating apps for about a year. He has had several relationships before that, but mostly with women he met via mutual friends. “I was never comfortable just going up to someone at a bar and saying hi, it’s just not something Indians have grown up doing.”

Many older people just don’t know how to date. Now they have to be tech-savvy, know when to use the eggplant emoji, and learn what fwb, breadcrumbing, and ghosting mean.

Vivek did find dating apps daunting in the early days, when he used to chat with multiple women simultaneously. Now, he prefers to chat with one woman at a time and see where that goes before matching with someone new. “Apps have made things very easy; 20-25 years ago, if you liked someone, you had to do some asking around, find out their relationship status and what they were looking for. But on apps, people are clear about what they want, whether it’s something casual or committed, short-term or long, which I really like.” The thing is, there are fewer women his age on the apps (he’s tried Hinge, Bumble, and Aisle), so he ends up matching with women in their late 30s and early 40s.  

It’s a curious paradox. While on the apps, men form an overwhelming majority, women prefer on-ground singles’ events and dating services. And this is true across age groups. Naina Hiranandani, the Mumbai-based founder of bespoke dating and matchmaking service Sirf Coffee, says that 60 per cent of her clients are women. And this percentage is even higher among clients in the 50-65 age bracket. “Women are more forthcoming about being single and asking for help publicly on dating and relationships, while men are not geared to do that,” she says, adding that her female clients usually want more meaningful relationships. And while she wouldn’t generalise, she says “there are more men looking for hookups, so perhaps they prefer apps.” She adds, “a service like Sirf Coffee, which does serious vetting of applicants, including asking for divorce papers, is not the right avenue for anyone looking for an extramarital affair or hookup.”  

Devyani, a 64-year-old former teacher from Bengaluru, whose husband passed away 12 years ago, has other reasons for choosing mixers. “We aren’t used to these ways [apps] of meeting people and at our age, people do judge, especially if you are a woman. In my family, for me to be on a dating app would be a major stigma. ‘Why do you need to do all this at your age, it’s embarrassing for us, what if the kids (my nieces and nephews) see your profile?’ Except, how would they see it unless their own preferences included people my age? But you can’t explain that to a lot of people,” she rues. “With mixers and socials, you can at least get away with saying you met through friends, in a manner of speaking. Plus, for women, I think it is very much a question of safety and that doesn’t come from chatting on an app, it comes from meeting in person.” 

She tried an app once, two years ago. “It was very stressful trying to figure out what to say, and it felt a bit robotic to ask the same questions and get the same replies from five different men. And how many times can you answer ‘So, how was your day?’ and ‘What did you eat for dinner?’ Also, I think the apps give too many options. It feels like a marketplace.” 

Having too many options is not something men seem to mind. When I ask 67-year-old Thomas about it, he grins. “I started using the apps about five years ago, and initially I set my preferences to women above 60, but there were just a handful, and they were the same across all the apps. It was only after I lowered my age preference to 45+ that I really started seeing a lot more options. And those women obviously didn’t have a problem with my age or they would have different settings themselves!” 

The widowed father of two divides his time between Mumbai and London. He doesn't intend to remarry as his children are against it. “They don’t mind me dating—they know I’m doing it. But I think they worry about their inheritance. I haven’t really given it too much thought because at my age, I’m pretty much done with marriage anyway. I just want to have a good time.” 

I posit the view that men prefer apps to mixers, and Thomas nods. “Apps give you a certain anonymity, ironically, even though everything is public and online. See, with going to a mixer, you’ll go somewhere in your own city or even your own neighbourhood. Like, in Mumbai, the townies will stick to the town areas and people in Andheri and Juhu will go to events there. You could bump into people you know and that might be embarrassing. On apps, your friends, cousins, and colleagues might see your profile, but they will never bring it up with you because then you’ll know they are also on it.” 

Love, sex, and LV bags  

The major drawback of dating apps, according to the men I speak to, is how often they fall into the role of a sugar daddy. Vivek tells me that out of every 10 women he matches with, “at least seven are very clear that they’re looking for some sort of financial support. Be it a holiday or a Louis Vuitton bag, they expect me to buy it for them. And these are not people I’m in a relationship with, just casually seeing!”  

On Hinge, 62-year-old Bhavyadeep says he has never been in any kind of relationship or even gone on a date. But he’s considering uninstalling the app because he’s so disillusioned with the number of women who want money for their startups or are only interested in “foodie calls” (I had to Google this: it means going on dates only for free meals). 

Sometimes the ask is straightforward, like a bag, jewellery, or a holiday; often it’s less direct. “I once met a woman who, on the first date, told me that her dad was unwell and needed surgery,” recalls Thomas. “In the same breath, she told me about some housing loan and how she was not finding work easily (she was a freelance stylist). All this on the first date seemed a bit too suspicious. It felt like she was trying to find out if I would give her money. I didn’t meet her again.” 

Vivek thinks he's found a litmus test. After a day or two of chatting on apps, he likes to switch to WhatsApp, and meet within the week “just to see if the person is genuine”. He says, almost defensively, “I understand there can be hesitation for women sometimes to give their number, for safety reasons, but most women I have met have been pretty quick to suggest switching to WhatsApp themselves. And with the ones who are hesitant, if it goes on for too long without a phone number, we lose momentum and fizzle out after a while.” 

While he appreciates that women take the initiative to give their phone number and suggest dates and holidays, Vivek seems uncomfortable with how “bold” they are when it comes to sex. “It’s fine for a hookup or if you’re just doing timepass, but if you say you’re looking for a serious relationship, it’s important to connect and talk first. I’m open-minded about a lot of things, but I do like to get to know someone, maybe go out for dinners and movies, and then take it further.” 

A month later, at the singles’ mixer, listening to Asha talk about what she’s looking for, I make a mental note to introduce her to Vivek.