NEW YORK - Baby boomers are swelling the ranks of online dating sites, and John Valentino is a happy veteran.
At 57, after a decade of pushing profiles and awkward meet-ups with strangers, he's married to 54-year-old year Debbie, a former Marine he met online two years ago.
"I had plenty of lemons before lemonade, believe me," said Valentino, a furniture salesman in Long Branch, N.J.
One prospect said he was too old. Another went out with him to win a bet with a coworker. A third told him all about her two grown sons and "their careers in the penal system, only they weren't guards."
That's when Valentino ventured onto a site that caters to older people - at the time called SeniorPeopleMeet.com. He quickly let go of his prejudice against the word senior and found Debbie, who has war stories of her own about trying to find a mate her age online.
"On other sites, most of the men who would contact me were a lot younger," she said. "I would say why are you writing me, I'm looking for somebody my own age. I made it very clear in my profile. They would say I want the experience of dating an older woman."
Dating online the second time around - after divorce or the death of a spouse - isn't always second nature for the nation's 78 million boomers, let alone people who are 65 and older, but neither is it all that scary.
Yet they often have unrealistic notions of how to hunt for love and companionship, said Pepper Schwartz, a sociology professor at the University of Washington in Seattle, sex and relationship expert for the AARP, and developer of an algorithm to make matches more meaningful on the dating site PerfectMatch.com.
"People 65 or older, they're picky in a different way," she said. "Young people tend to go for looks, period. Older people often have a little bit more leeway on what somebody looks like, but then they have all these other kinds of requirements that may or may not be realistic."
For example, a snowbird with a second home may be looking for a mate willing to winter in Arizona. Others may unnecessarily limit possibilities by ruling out partners with all health issues.
In addition, Schwartz said, "Men are very interested in women being self-sufficient. Women are deathly afraid of becoming nursemaids, but long lists can really hurt. I hate the word settle, but you need to be practical."
Schwartz said most are looking for a long-term relationship within five years of their own age.
Based on the Census Bureau's 2009 American Community Survey, which samples three million U.S. households, as well as 2010 census data released so far this year, people 65 and older make up roughly 13 percent of the population born between 1946 and 1964.
The 65-plus age group will amount to nearly 1 in 5 Americans by 2030.
Boomers ages 55 to 64 are the fastest-growing age group since 2000, jumping 43 percent to about 35 million.
The number of people ages 45 to 54 also rose sharply, up 18 percent to 45 million as young boomers moved into the ranks.
Rob Briscoe, a 50-year-old software developer in Chicago, divorced four years ago after 21 years of marriage. He missed the rise of online dating about 16 years ago.
When he joined HighLifeAdventures.com, "I was just trying to get out." The site, which recently morphed into SocialOne.com, arranges group activities in select cities, from dinner out to hang-gliding, for people of all ages. His two kids, ages 18 and 19, were guardedly supportive.
"I joined because the events were so interesting. There's skydiving, hot air ballooning, kayaking, camping. They were all bucket-list items. My kids said, 'Are you sure, Dad?' "
In about seven years of dating online, 58-year-old Becky Olson in suburban Chicago gave up on the profile-driven approach with no success and turned to the same group meet-up site as Briscoe. The site prearranges group events and activities for its members.
"I didn't find true love but I found something better, friends," she said. "I joined to find a man but it took me about six months to settle down and realize, wow, this is really fun and I just prefer to relax. No pressure."
On eHarmony.com, an industry leader, people 50 and older are one of the fastest-growing segments among its more than 33 million users worldwide. The same goes for competitor Match.com, which said about 25 percent of its members are between 50 and 65.
The number of boomers on Match has grown 89 percent in the last five years, site officials said, including 71 percent after a divorce and 11 percent who were widowed.
The site where John and Debbie Valentino met has since become OurTime, with one million members and in the same corporate family as Match.
Thirty percent of its users surveyed said they're looking exclusively for a serious relationship. About 20 percent are looking exclusively for something more casual, and the rest are open to either.
OurTime users ages 50 to 64 said their top priority is a long-term relationship, while those 65 and older said companionship was their main goal. The site's membership has grown more than 400 percent since 2009. About 65 percent of the members have been divorced and 25 percent widowed.
According to the research firm comScore, the number of online dating site users overall who are 50 and older has grown twice as rapidly as all other age groups. Usage by the 50-plus set is up 8 percent across sites.
A 2009 Pew Research survey showed that the typical boomer believes old age doesn't begin until 72 - not 65. That goes a long way toward explaining why IAC, the parent of OurTime, did away with senior in the site's name.
"It's a vibrant group and that term doesn't have broad appeal," said Greg Blatt, IAC's CEO.
Gail Saltz, a psychology professor in New York and OurTime's relationship expert, said people over 50 - especially women - can feel more comfortable on sites where they're not competing with younger faces.
"In addition, you're going to not only be a good competitor but you're going to find other like-minded people who are looking for that, so you don't have to put yourself out there," she said.
Scott Valdez, who owns VirtualDatingAssistants.com, a dating concierge service for all ages, said stretching the comfort zone is the first hurdle for older newbies who grew up with different notions about privacy and are trying to adjust to tell-all life online.
"Posting a profile with pictures for other members on the site to see is not negotiable," he said. "And you've also got to be willing to proactively contact people without letting it bruise your ego when they don't respond."