Berlin, Md. — Forgive Charles Walsh if he's a little slow to join in the rounds of speed dating going on around him.
Not only has the 55-year-old divorced father never tried speed dating - he hasn't been out at night except for work events in about a decade.
"I was married for 20 years, and now I'm nervous," said Walsh, who preferred to sip a Bud Light at the bar and watch as more than 50 older adults in this beachside town tried speed dating. Men and women are paired for a few minutes of get-to-know-you chat before switching partners.
Forget boring dinner parties. Older Americans looking for love have taken a cue from young urban singles, flocking to speed-dating events and online personals sites.
Match.com, a dating Web site, says registrations among people over 50 have soared 340 percent since 2000. The American Association of Retired Persons now writes dating advice in its member magazine.
On Maryland's Eastern Shore, where the roads are dotted with ads for new retirement communities, the changing senior dating scene is evident.
The speed-dating event Walsh attended was put on by Mingling Singles, a group that's tripled its membership since its creation just two months ago.
Another group near Ocean City, Beach Singles, has 150 members, all over the age of 45, with a new chapter planned in nearby Salisbury.
The Merry Widows and Widowers Social Club also operates in Ocean City.
"The seniors are pouring down here," said Lois West, 71, secretary of Beach Singles. "They move here for the beach, but then they don't know anybody."
The silver-haired singles scene on the Eastern Shore is likely to keep growing.
Eight of nine counties on the shore have a greater proportion of people over 65 than Maryland as a whole, according to the Census Bureau. In Talbot and Worcester counties, more than one in five residents are now over 65, compared with about 11.3 percent for the state as a whole.
At the speed-dating event, some attendees said their grown children pushed them to attend. Others said they were sick of tagging along with friends who are couples, or were just tired of trying to find love in a bar.
"As soon as my 31-year-old daughter heard about it, she was like, 'Oh, Mom, you have to go,"' said JoAnn Collinson, 52, a widow from Bishopville who said she's looking as much for companionship as romance.
Rick Hosler, 56, retired to the area after a career as a firefighter but admitted being a little scared to talk to single women. "I would've never thought I'd do this," he said before the lights flickered to signify the speed-dating would begin. "I'm not a bar-type person. I don't like crowds."
The matchmaking industry is catching on to the dating interests of older adults. Some dating Web sites now have special seniors-only areas.
Spark Networks, based in Los Angeles, started SilverSingles.com last year, and the site now has about 600,000 members. Another of its dating sites, PrimeSingles.net, has another 13,000 members.
"Seniors have started to see that it's more acceptable, more socially acceptable, to try online dating," said company spokeswoman Gail Laguna.
Seniors are more comfortable than they used to be with the Internet, and they're finding that online dating lets them take their time choosing a possible mate, said Kathleen Roldan, spokeswoman for San Francisco-based Match.com.
"Fifty-five and over is our fastest-growing segment," Roldan said. "As we get older, the pool of eligible people we have to choose from gets smaller and smaller. And the bar scene is not attractive."
It's too soon to know whether the speed-dating event resulted in any romances - like many singles groups, women far outnumbered men - but based on the din of laughter in the crowd, the singles enjoyed it.
Even Charles Walsh eventually sat down and chatted with some ladies.
"I'm just starting again" in the singles scene, said Ryan Boyer, 49, of Ocean City. "It's hard. You know what I mean? Where do you start again? I'm just re-learning how to meet people."
Even if they don't find love quickly, senior singles enjoy the activities more often associated with younger people, West said. And if romance comes later, they'll be ready.