Love calls out to octogenarians online

The love story that Kathy Weil and Bob Baldwin find themselves immersed in sounds just like a fairy tale.

It involves two once-lonely people longing for someone – both are widowed and in their 80s – and finding each other in a quirky way: via an online dating service for older people.

The story includes a big, bad wolf from which Weil needed to be rescued – an Internet scam artist who sweet-talked her out of thousands of dollars before she met her Prince Charming.

It also has a valiant quest: To meet Weil, Baldwin drove 1,300 miles alone last winter from his home in Montana to hers in Huntington Beach.

And best of all, it has a happy ending. They are getting married today.

“We’re old enough to know better,” quips Baldwin, who is 83, “but too young to resist.”

FINDING EACH OTHER

Weil and Baldwin plan to say their vows in a ceremony at the American Legion Hall in Newport Beach, with the blessings of their children.

“I think they need each other equally,” says Debbie Lefever, one of Weil’s four children. “He’s a caregiver, and she needs help with the little stuff. He likes to talk, and she likes to listen.”

Before the couple found their way to each other in October, both were set upon by online predators. But unlike Weil, Baldwin did not send money.

A retired history teacher in Bozeman, Baldwin lost his wife of 61 years in January 2015.

He reconnected with his high school sweetheart, but that didn’t work out. Loneliness drove him to the Internet.

He recalls being asked to send $3,000 at least a couple of times to finance trips to Europe for people who expressed romantic attraction but had business to finish.

He raises his eyebrows and says of the requests: “That was interesting.”

Weil’s first husband died in 1995. She had been a longtime homemaker. Even though she also served several years on the Tustin Planning Commission, Weil always has been a woman whose life revolved around the man she was with, Lefever says.

“Mom was raised in a generation where a man was defined by what he did and a woman by whom she married.”

The next man in Weil’s life was her boyfriend of 15 years, who died in August. Not wanting to be alone, she signed up with several online dating services, including Match.com, eHarmony.com and sites specifically for singles 50 and older, Our Time and Senior People Meet.

She didn’t tell her children that she was looking for love online. They found out after noticing $23,000 drained from her bank account.

Weil had wired the money, in three installments, to someone who purported to be an engineer working in Malaysia and said in email correspondence that he needed cash to finish a project before he could come to meet her.

The family sought help from the FBI; the money couldn’t be recovered.

That scammer wasn’t the only one trying to connect with Weil.

“My mom had over 30,000 emails in her in-box,” Lefever recalls. “It took eight hours to go through and delete them and unsubscribe her from the services – all the dating sites you’ve heard of, she was on them.”

Weil, who is 80, is hardly alone in falling victim to such online scams. A New York Times story published last summer reported that 6,000 people had registered complaints about romantic financial fraud with the federal Internet Crime Complaint Center during a six-month period in 2014. AARP The Magazine did a lengthy piece on the subject last year.

The loneliness and isolation that some older adults experience can make them particularly vulnerable to such scams, says Kerry Burnight, a gerontologist and founding director of the Elder Abuse Forensic Center of Orange County.

“It’s great to look for relationships in older life, but if you are doing it in isolation, it has a greater likelihood of these really bad outcomes.”

Burnight says there is a delicate balance between safety and autonomy that both the elderly and their children must seek out.

“We live in a society where adults are autonomous, and that’s good. But always make sure to be careful and keep in good contact,” she advises. “That’s our message – that elders are the solution and family members are, too.”

A LONG TRIP AND ROMANCE

One of Baldwin’s four children, Robert John Baldwin, knew about his dad’s romantic exploration online because his dad accidentally had given one of the dating services his son’s email address instead of his own.

“I get emails once a week from women who are interested in me – in their 80s,” says his son, who is 59 and married.

He knew that his dad had connected with Weil through SeniorPeopleMeet.com and cautioned him to take his time to get to know her, even offering to fly him to California if it got that far.

So it surprised him a few weeks before Christmas to find out that his dad had left on his own to meet Weil in Huntington Beach.

His son had begun tracking Baldwin’s phone calls after the online scam attempts and noticed three-hour conversations between him and Weil.

It turned out that for most of the time on the road, Weil talked with Baldwin, who conversed hands-free thanks to the Bluetooth in his car. Despite snowstorms, the trip was without incident – except that Baldwin forgot his diabetes medication and had to detour to a CVS pharmacy in Las Vegas.

Meeting in person sealed the deal for the pair, who rode together back to Bozeman. She returned again in December when he was briefly hospitalized.

Weil gazes up at Baldwin lovingly – she’s 4-foot-11 and he’s about a foot taller – when she says, “He’s my Montana cowboy.”

Their children have talked to each parent’s suitor and corresponded with one another as well. Knowing that both sides are looking out for their parent’s best interest – and finances – gives them a degree of assurance about the marriage.

Says Lefever: “A message to families is you’ve got to watch them, but you’ve got to let them go for it, too.”

WEDDING PLANS

About 40 guests are invited to witness Weil take her vows in a cream-colored wedding gown with a pair of new white Keds on her feet.

Baldwin still fits in the tux he used to wear for performances about 40 years ago with a choral group.

A son will walk Weil down the aisle, a daughter will be her matron of honor, grandchildren will be her bridesmaids and ushers, and Lefever, a professional photographer, will snap the wedding pictures.

Baldwin’s son flew in from Texas to be best man.

After the reception, the happy couple will drive back to Bozeman for another celebration and then honeymoon in Branson, Mo.

They aren’t sure whether they will live Southern California, in Montana, or split their time between her condo in a retirement community or his 3,000-square-foot house on 1 3/4 acres.

Where they settle doesn’t matter, they say. All they care about is being together.

Contact the writer: 714-796-7793 or twalker@ocregister.com

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