Above: Marion Wright shares a laugh with her interview partner during Somerby Senior Living’s speed dating event; photos by Phil Mosier

In October, Jodi Firestone hatched a plan that had been years in the making. She’s the community liaison for Somerby Senior Living and she decided to pull together a senior speed dating event at the Somerby location in Sandy Springs.

Vivienne Kurland of the Jewish Family and Career Services takes pictures before the event.

The gathering wasn’t really about dating or finding romance. The aim was to give these older adults an opportunity to meet new people and make new connections. Firestone was inspired in part by similar gatherings hosted by Vivienne Kurland, Program Coordinator for One Good Deed and Aviv Older Adult Services through Jewish Family & Career Services of Atlanta. Kurland was on hand to help out during Somerby’s event.

Around the room, small square tables were decorated with glass jars, filled to the brim with silver kiss candies. Balloons hovered above; two chairs sat across from one another in anticipation. A main table with finger food and drinks was flanked by vases of white roses.

Excited chatter and laughter took over as men and women found their seats. One participant bowed out early due to nerves.

Spencer Weil pauses to consider his response.

As Firestone went over the rules for the event—10 tables, 10 partners to rotate, four minutes of conversation per round—she added a few pointers. Already the talk between pairs had taken off, and she had to pause a few times to make sure everyone understood how the process worked.

Although the flyer promoting the event sported the tagline, “Come to Mingle and Don’t Leave Single!”, and while a few men confessed to Firestone that they hoped “to meet my next wife,” Kurland was quick to emphasize that this event “could be a friendship match.”

It’s about finding someone that might offer extra companionship, to add enrichment outside of family, children and grandchildren,” she said.

Leila Sultzer, right, greets Maurice Shemper left, with a smile.

Each participant received a blank sheet to list names. If there was a spark, or a friendship connection, it should be indicated on the sheet, and if both sides match, there would be an exchange of contact information. No discussion of politics. Take time to listen.

As the timer began, icebreaker questions about hobbies and family filled the room. Some choose to be more creative, starting off with “If you were a wild animal, what animal would you be?”

As each table switched over, it became clear that the focus was not just on the participants, but on those watching the events from the side. As it turned out, the opportunity to “Rediscover Your Spark” was so popular that there was a waiting list.

Edna Blackman, 83, and Patsy Day, 70, friends and both former residents of New York City, came to the event even though they knew they might not get to participate directly.

Patsy Day, left,
and Edna Blackman, right
Photo by Julie Bloemeke

“We were coming to get a spot, but it’s not happening, not today,” Blackman said, watching from afar, “but still, it’s an interesting experience.” Neither had been to a speed dating activity and they were curious to see what it was like. Day laughed and said, “We’re here hanging out for fun, and because I hope to see someone else connect!”

Clearly enjoying the time together, they watched and predicted where they’d see “sparks flying” between the participants.

As the event came to a close, participants made notes and ruminated over who caught their attention. Later, as Firestone and Kurland gathered up the sheets, they were amazed to find wonderfully detailed observations.

One woman’s notes included phrases such as “Great guy. Credit to society.” And “Kind, blue eyes.”

As far as sparks? There were quite a few.

Maurice Shemper, 80, a Temple Sinai member who has lived in Atlanta since the late 1970s, said he definitely experienced a spark.

“I had a connection with two people—one was a huge connection—one of her friends is a woman I grew up with in Mississippi,” Shemper said. “I’ve already invited her to “The Color Purple” at the Fox Theatre next week.”

Cookie Schaffer, left and below, interviews Maurice Shemper, right.

Cookie Shaffer, 80, a native Atlantan, also admitted she felt a few sparks. Most of the men she talked with asked her about her interests and where she was from. Her true hope after speed dating? “I’m a UGA/Cowboys/Falcons fan, and I want someone to watch football with.”

Spencer Weil, who’ll be 96 in December, didn’t necessarily experience any sparks, but thoroughly enjoyed the event. His son, Dan Weil, who came as a bystander, attested to it.  “He’d do this every day if he could. He’s wildly social.”

When asked why he decided to sign up for speed dating, Weil said he’d recently moved from New York City, was looking to make connections and because “I love Atlanta; it’s gotten into my blood.”

And what wild animal would he be?  Weil laughed and said, “Yes, one gal asked me that and I haven’t the slightest idea.”

Participants lingered long after the event closed and Firestone was packing up the decorations. Many left the room and gathered in the hall where animated conversation continued.         One man, who only identified himself as “Jim Beam” reached behind Firestone and snagged a white rose from the vases of flowers on the cart.

A woman, distracted in conversation with another man, suddenly turned toward him. Slyly he placed the rose on her wheeled walker and grinned.

The Spark of Friendship

When it comes to senior speed dating, sometimes the connection isn’t about dating at all. Friendship, support between those with similar interests, and creating an extended network of family are all reasons seniors seek out pairing events that “help seniors rediscover their spark.”

Take Lynn Podber, 59, and Syd Green, 91, two women who matched at a similar event through One Good Deed and Jewish Family & Career Services of Atlanta about two years ago. For Podber, a volunteer with One Good Deed and a former resident of Orlando, and Green, who lived most of her life in New York City, meeting one another was nothing short of transformational.

As soon as they began to talk about their relationship, their enthusiasm and laughter lit up the room, their admiration and gratitude for one another immediately apparent.

Podber was quick to share what she enjoys about spending time with Green. “Syd is extremely wise and gives great life advice,” she said. “We can talk about almost anything!”

Green said she was thankful they met. “Lynn tells me everything. It’s a beautiful situation. I have loved it since the minute we started. Our connection has become something more than just who we are. She gives up her own time—she’s been marvelous.”

And how have Podber and Green spent time together so far? They’ve been to restaurants, gone shopping and to the grocery, run errands together, attended movies and visited the library. This is, not surprisingly, only a partial list. But sometimes, they simply partake in one of their favorite activities. “We do nothing but chat,” said Green.

Podber checks in on Green with regular phone calls, sometimes just to talk, other times to offer to run errands. “She’s so busy but she chooses to have someone else in her life that isn’t a blood relation,” said Green. “Even though we’re not related, she feels like part of the family.”

Perhaps what Podber and Green have most gained from their relationship is their sense of helping and inspiring one another, the regaining of another kind of spark. When Podber shares stories about her life, Green reflects on hers.

“I’ll tell you what. I’m always learning and reflecting,” Green said. “It’s so different how you all are living now. It was easier for me than it is for this group of women today.”

Julie E. Bloemeke is a writer and poet based in metro Atlanta.