Loneliness is bad for you — so why not try speed dating?

October 31 2013

Jayne Taylor checks out an unusual venture to bring older people together

lorna and rebecca speed dating for the over 55s

DID you know men and women who are married or in committed relationships live longer? 

While for some solo living is their choice, for many others, who perhaps find themselves divorced or bereaved, the pain of loneliness can be devastating.

Last month Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt shocked the nation with statistics claiming as many as 800,000 people in England are “chronically lonely”.

He warned loneliness was as bad for you as smoking 15 cigarettes a day and worse than obesity because of the risks of blood clots, heart disease and dementia.

Aware of these frightening statistics, one Bristol organisation is hoping to change all that.

As part of South Gloucestershire Council’s Discover Festival, housing association Merlin hit upon a novel idea to help combat loneliness and boost life expectancy - speed dating for the over 55s. I had to admit I was intrigued. Wasn’t that best left to the young ‘uns? Was there a demand from men and women in their 60s, 70s and even 80s? What sort of people would turn up? Would anyone turn up for that matter?

The urge to find out more was too strong so I decided to go along, not to take part (I’m precluded by several years!) but to meet the people there and find out what their motivation is. 

The event, which took place at Grace Court sheltered housing in Dial Lane, Downend on October 18, attracted people from across South Gloucestershire and Bristol.

Unsurprisingly, the number of women outnumbered men threefold. It meant the odds were pretty good for the guys to find the woman of their dreams but not so good for the ladies. Would it be handbags at dawn?

Lorna Giles, Merlin’s senior activities manager, hosted the event, placing the four men on tables in the lounge while each woman took it in turns to spend just five minutes talking to them.

The aim was to see if they liked each other enough to meet up again. If the conversation should run dry, Lorna had placed a set of questions on the table.

And should anyone take a shine to someone, they could write their contact details down and this would get passed on to the relevant person via Lorna.

I wasn’t rude enough to sit in on conversations but the participants told me all manner of subjects were covered, the most popular being holidays, family, divorce, occupations and hobbies.

Margaret Beavis, a retired care worker from Warmley, looked far too young to be there but insisted she was 62. With youthful looks and figure women half her age would envy, surely it was easy for her to meet people?

“My marriage split up and for the last 12 years I’ve been involved in the singles scene in Bristol,” she explained.“There are lots of dances to go to and I’ve been out with a few people but I don’t really want to meet anyone from those types of places.

“It’s hard to find someone with the same interests. There are so many things I do but I do of lot of them on my own so it would be nice to have someone to share that with.

“I don’t go by looks; it’s more important to have someone you can talk to and be good friends with.”

Barry Robbins, 60, of Fishponds, divorced 10 years ago. He said: “I like to network. You can never have too many friends. It’s nice to broaden your horizons.”

Would he speed date again?

“Yes, it’s been fantastic!” he tells me.

“Loneliness can be a great problem but it can be difficult to meet people so this is a great way to meet people in a relaxed manner, in an informal setting and with no pressure.”

Retired lecturer Barbara Webb, 82, from Winterbourne, told me she turned up after being dared by some of her friends.

“I almost didn’t go but I didn’t have anything else on. It’s been nice to get out of the house and have a chat. It’s been fun and I’ve met some nice people with some interesting stories to tell.

“I’ll have to report back to my friends and wind them up.”

I jokingly advised Barbara to tell them she had met a millionaire and was off to the Caribbean.

Barbara, an immaculate looking woman widowed a year ago, confessed she wasn’t looking for romance.

 “For me it’s a chance to meet to likeminded women and perhaps go out to lunch because you can’t lunch on your own, can you?”

Hugh Steele, 70, a retired BBC engineer who lives in Longwell Green, has been single for six years after splitting with his partner.

“I went there not at all seriously, just to see what it was like. I’m generally nervous about meeting new people and going somewhere I don’t know anybody but it wasn’t as bad as what I’d thought it would be. It certainly wasn’t a cattle market! 


“They were fun people who, like me, made the effort to get there. I had no difficulty in talking to any of them and I don’t think any of them had any difficulty either. I don’t think five minutes was long enough; it wasn’t even time to scratch the surface.

“I would go again and take it a little more seriously next time.”

And Hugh’s advice to anyone wishing they had the courage to try speed dating?

“Go for it! You’ve got nothing to lose.”

Sue Woodland, 66, from Westbury-on-Trym, perhaps best summed up the essence of the event. She said: “It’s all about getting out, doing something different, socialising and having fun. If you meet someone, then that’s a bonus.”

And would I, the fly on the wall, have any hesitation in recommending a future speed dating event?

Absolutely not. I met some smashing people in those couple of hours and I wasn’t even taking part!

Most of the men and women came on their own, fighting off whatever nerves they may have had, and, by virtue of lives well lived, each had a fascinating story to tell.

You see, youth might be a splendid thing but it’s certainly wasted on the young.

*If you would like to be kept informed of Merlin’s future events you can sign up to their mailing list by emailing activityservice@merlinhs.co.uk or calling 01454 821080.