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Late-in-life love at Bellingham’s Senior Activity Center

Older community members find friendships, unexpected romances

Joan Armstrong, 76, looks at her partner Robert Rome, 78 on Feb. 6 at Whatcom Falls Park. The pair met at the Bellingham Senior Activity Center and have been dating for 10 months.
Joan Armstrong, 76, looks at her partner Robert Rome, 78, on Tuesday, Feb. 6 at Whatcom Falls Park. The pair met at the Bellingham Senior Activity Center and have been dating for 10 months. (Cocoa Laney/Cascadia Daily News)
By Cocoa Laney Lifestyle Editor

Every weekday at 11:30 a.m., Bellingham Senior Activity Center (BSAC) members gather around the lunch table to share meals and stories. Some members attend only on occasion, whereas others dine here daily. Topics span from hobbies and families to money-saving tips and current events, though politics are (mostly) avoided. Even when tables are crowded, diners do their best to make room for everyone.

Bev Smith, Hamilton Dugcher, Katie Bryant, Ron Peterson and Glen Baughan enjoy communal lunch on Feb. 6 at the Bellingham Senior Center.
Members enjoy communal lunch at the Bellingham Senior Activity Center. (Cocoa Laney/Cascadia Daily News)

BSAC offers a wide range of classes and activities, but for many community members, lunch was the initial attraction. Robert Rome is no exception. After his wife of 53 years died of a lung disorder, he began having meals at restaurants as a way to socialize. 

“I had some friends say, ‘Go down to the senior center, they have a really good lunch there,’” Rome said. He followed their advice — and, in addition to enjoying a hot meal, Rome met Joan Armstrong for the first time.

Armstrong, 76, had recently moved to Bellingham and also began frequenting BSAC to build community. On the day she met Rome, “I was volunteering in the dining area, serving coffee and tea and all of that,” she said. “He was this tall, good-looking guy that just said, ‘Do you want to text?”

Rome didn’t know it, but Armstrong had “been alone for a lot of years” and wasn’t looking for a romantic connection. However, he quickly won her over with his sensitivity and intelligence. For his part, Rome loves “virtually almost everything” about Armstrong, noting that their lifestyles and worldviews are very compatible. 

In the early days of their relationship, even the smallest milestones felt monumentous.

“At first it was like, ‘OK, it’s been a week. Let’s celebrate a week,’” Armstrong said. 

But the weeks kept flying by, and so did the months — and now Armstrong and Rome have been a couple for 10 months. The pair still maintain active social lives, both independently and as a couple, and offer each other companionship, support and plenty of laughter.

“We’re two people with different stories, but we have a lot in common,” Armstrong said. “And we really enjoy being together.”


Valentine's Day cards are displayed beside a poster for "The Age of Love" on Feb. 6 at the Bellingham Senior Activity Center.
Valentine’s Day cards are displayed beside a poster for “The Age of Love.” (Cocoa Laney/Cascadia Daily News)

Building relationships and community at BSAC

Armstrong and Rome’s love story might not fit traditional narratives, but at BSAC, it’s far from an anomaly. Late-in-life romances are common enough that Eric Pierson, BSAC’s program coordinator, was inspired to host a screening of “The Age of Love,” a documentary focusing on dating amongst seniors, on Wednesday, Feb. 14 at the Pickford. The screening will be followed by Bellingham’s first senior speed dating event on March 9.

BSAC executive director Molly Simon said BSAC had 2,010 members at the end of 2023, with roughly 300 of them visiting daily. In other words, odds look good for those hoping to build relationships at BSAC — platonic and otherwise. 

“[Members] may be newly retired, they may be new to the community or they may just be coming back out into the community after the pandemic,” said Simon. “And if you put yourself out there, you’re going to make connections, whether that’s friendships or romantic relationships. We see it all the time.”

Pairs, some together and some not, swirl around the dance floor during a social dance at the Bellingham Senior Activity Center. (Hailey Hoffman/Cascadia Daily News)

BSAC offers a surprising variety of classes and activities every week, spanning everything from fitness classes to card games and discussion groups. Members build strong friendship networks through these classes; for example, Simon said the Tuesday/Thursday Zumba class is particularly close-knit. Attendees meet before class to socialize, sing each other “Happy Birthday” and rally around each other in times of illness or family hardship. 

Additionally, BSAC’s Tuesday dance program is popular for singles and couples alike.

“Right now we have a couple that’s just in the new days of their relationship,” Simon said. “They met at dance, and I noticed over the last couple of weeks they’ve been meeting at the senior center most afternoons to sit in the coffee bar.”

Other ongoing programs and groups include yoga, hiking, writing, Spanish conversation, quilting, singing and a variety of games. Cathy Nishimura, 74, met her partner Kevin Christy Clark, 76, at BSAC while playing ping-pong. 

Cathy Nishimura and Kevin Christy Clark met playing ping-pong at the Bellingham Senior Activity Center.
Cathy Nishimura and Kevin Christy Clark met playing ping-pong at the Bellingham Senior Activity Center. (Photo courtesy of Cathy Nishimura)

Nishimura is a retired teacher with a master’s in curriculum and instruction, and she said she’s most impressed by the level of education among BSAC members. Clark is no exception: He has a doctorate in theology, a master’s in global education and a paralegal certification. 

“What attracted me to Kevin was his positive outlook on life, his thoughtfulness and great concern for planet Earth,” Nishimura said in an email. (She and Clark are currently on a 100-day cruise together.) “He is very outgoing and is a lifelong learner. He has many other great qualities, one being that he has embraced my family and in particular my three grandchildren (ages 6, 10 and 12).”

In another example, Reba McGear, 82, and her partner Harvey Payne, 82, met at BSAC while playing bridge — though McGear was “not impressed” by their initial encounter. But the two kept crossing paths: first at a social club for single seniors, and then at a walking group Payne leads at the mall. By the end of the walking group, McGear had a much better read on the qualities she found attractive in Payne, particularly his sense of humor.

“When I showed up [to the walking group], it was just the two of us,” McGear recounted. “And so we walked around the mall and talked, and he said after … ‘Can I hold your hand?’ So I thought that was awfully nice.”

Like Armstrong, McGear wasn’t looking for romance. She was briefly married in her 20s and figured that “if you don’t get married again, you don’t have to get divorced.” But Payne was the exception to her rule: They wed on Feb. 12, 2022 and now live together in Las Cruces, New Mexico.

Finally, Simon said her personal favorite BSAC love story involves a couple who — much like Armstrong and Rome — met at the same lunch table.

“Last year in February, on Valentine’s Day, they had called us in advance and said, ‘Would it be OK if we asked the justice of the peace to come and marry us at the senior center?’” she recounted. “[I said] yes, of course, we’d love that. And so they were in the coffee bar, some of their children came, and people in the coffee bar celebrated with them. They had the sweetest little ceremony, and were wed right here where they met.”

Perks of late-in-life love

Nearly a year into her relationship with Rome, Armstrong believes that falling in love later in life can be “a lot luckier than when you’re younger” — and part of that comes down to practice. Older couples have had the chance to learn from past mistakes, thus gaining a more realistic outlook on romance.

Robert Rome and Joan Armstrong on Tuesday, Feb. 6 at Whatcom Falls Park. (Cocoa Laney/Cascadia Daily News)

“I think I had high expectations in my youth, and I don’t think anybody could have probably met those expectations,” Armstrong continued. “But it’s like, at this time of our life, let’s have fun. Let’s enjoy each other. Let’s enjoy our friends. Let’s laugh and have a good time.”

Nishimura added that retired couples also have more time to do what brings them joy. In addition to travel and ping-pong, she and Clark love hiking and cooking together. McGear and Payne share a love for singing in choirs, and they made sure to establish their common interests early on.

“We played [cards], we walked, but the best thing is holding hands,” added Payne. “I mean, it’s just out of this world.”

But beyond romance alone, late-in-life companionship also has tangible health benefits. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), seniors are more likely to be socially isolated due to factors such as health issues and the loss of family and friends. Isolation is associated with mental health concerns including anxiety, depression and even suicide.

There are also serious physical risks: Social isolation increases the likelihood of premature death in a way that may be comparable to smoking, obesity and physical inactivity. It even increases the risk of dementia by 50%. 

According to a report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM), one out of four adults age 65 and over are considered socially isolated. Thus, Pierson said BSAC’s couples benefit by “having someone to share life with” — but later-in-life love can also come with unique difficulties.

Reba McGear met her husband, Harvey Payne, playing bridge at the Bellingham Senior Activity Center.
Reba McGear met her husband, Harvey Payne, playing bridge at the Bellingham Senior Activity Center. (Photo courtesy of Reba McGear)

“I think [the No. 1 challenge is] health, and also the limited amount of time left to us,” Nishimura said. “There are updates to wills, power of attorney, combining one or more residences or the decisions to keep all resources separated.”

Family dynamics can also be challenging, especially when one or both partners have grown children.

“I’ve seen a couple whose adult children didn’t like the idea of their parent dating after the other parent had died,” Simon added. 

Part of Payne’s story exemplifies this challenge, though his three kids were still teenagers when his first wife died.

“When I got married right there soon thereafter, they didn’t like that,” he said. “They still missed their mother.”

Then Payne was widowed again, and by the time he met McGear, his children were in their 40s with kids of their own. McGear never had children (“and lately,” she said, “I think it was really a pretty good idea”). Still, Payne’s grandson asked if he could call her “grandma.”

“I said yes, and he gave me a big hug … That it was nice, for me to be a grandma,” McGear recounted. “I mean, I never thought it would be one.”

The importance of taking initiative

Mainstream dating advice is often aimed at young people, but some wisdom is applicable to all generations. For example: If you want to meet like-minded people, it’s imperative to put yourself out there. 

“You have to join groups, you have to go to church; if you don’t like to go to church, you can go out to eat, you can go to bars,” Payne advised. “You can join a walking group, a bicycle group, a running group. I mean, there are so many groups in Bellingham — but you have to join them. You can’t sit in your apartment and think, ‘You know, somebody’s gonna knock on my door and just knock me flat!’”

At the end of the day, Simon said, BSAC exists to help folks make connections.

The center can be used in a variety of ways; some members come once every few weeks for a single class, whereas many others visit every day and stay from 8:30 a.m. until close. Some younger regulars prefer to work as volunteers rather than attend classes. Since membership is open to individuals 50 and up, some members don’t even identify as seniors, but still joined BSAC for the community alone.

Valentine’s Day decorations thank front desk volunteers at the Bellingham Senior Activity Center. (Cocoa Laney/Cascadia Daily News)

“I think that the word ‘senior’ can be scary for a lot of people,” Simon said. “But really, we’re an activity center, or a rec place, where people come to have fun, engage and continue learning and [be] a vital part of a vibrant community.”

Pierson hopes both that “The Age of Love” screening, as well as the March 9 speed dating event, will help folks understand the extent of what BSAC has to offer.

“Understanding … the issues of loneliness and isolation that some seniors can face, I thought this was a good opportunity to do something different,” Pierson said. “And also to open it up to the community, so everyone can get a chance to participate and see the importance of the connections that people make later in life.”

Making an initial connection is one matter — but sustaining that connection is a different challenge, and not just for seniors. Each of the BSAC couples had thoughts about what makes a relationship last: McGear and Payne advised couples to make sure goals and values align (and maybe to live together) before getting married. Rome and Armstrong chalked up their success to laughing together, giving each other space when needed and not sweating the small stuff. 

Finally, Nishimura and Clark stressed the importance of approaching every new connection — romantic and otherwise — from a place of care.

“When you genuinely care about others, your life becomes richer,” Nishimura said. “If you start there, you may enjoy the benefits of many friendships and one that may turn into a romance. This applies to 20-year-olds to 100-year-olds.”

The exterior of the Bellingham Senior Center on Feb. 6.
The exterior of the Bellingham Senior Activity Center. (Cocoa Laney/Cascadia Daily News)

Cocoa Laney is CDN’s lifestyle editor; reach her at cocoalaney@cascadiadaily.com; 360-922-3090 ext. 128.

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