Hewitt Bruce extends his hand to a waiting lady pining for a dance — and someone with whom to share it. He twirls and waltzes and makes exacting steps; she has become the woman to envy. And as one song fades to another, he is off again, never far from making his next sweetheart a little less lonely. The shortage of men at Edgewater Pointe Estates is a perennial fact of life at retirement communities and nursing homes around the country, where women often outnumber men 3 to 1. Forget finding a mate — finding a man to dance with is tough enough. Edgewater's solution? Hire them.
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Bruce and another dancing aficionado, Nick Zaharias, are paid to make sure the surplus of women have a chance for a spin on the dance floor. The complex also brings in volunteers from a local college fraternity.
"When you bring a smile to someone's face and you help them to remember what it was like when they were younger and they were able to dance with their significant other or their husband, of course it's uplifting," Bruce said. "You're really bringing hope to people."
On this night, a Valentine's Day celebration just ahead of the holiday itself, the ballroom at Edgewater Pointe is adorned with balloons while candles flicker and the disco ball turns. A musician sings and plays the keyboard, cracking jokes about Engelbert Humperdinck along the way. And with precision, Bruce and Zaharias wear separate paths through the room, inviting women for a dance.
"At home, I dance with a broom," said Victoria Schabel, a 90-something resident who has kicked off her shoes to ease her sore feet and whose sparkling gold skirt and blouse shimmered as she danced with Zaharias. "This is better."
The escorts make small talk with their guests as they sway, and wide smiles often spread across wrinkled faces. Some women, widowed or single and eager to enjoy the music, dance with girlfriends instead. Some are too limited by disability to dance; others try anyway.
"OK, who's next?" Zaharias asks a table full of women, his arm outstretched.
Zaharias, 72, is a retired product designer who's taken too many ballroom dancing lessons to count. Bruce, 58, is a retired clinical psychologist whose training in dance led to his gig at Edgewater, and jobs as a dance host and instructor on cruise lines.
Both men are single. Their employment as dancers, while not a norm at retirement communities, points to the demographic imbalance of such homes.
Edgewater Pointe is part of a 23-home chain whose roughly 9,000 seniors are about 70 percent female, the result of longer lifespans among women and less likelihood they'll live alone. Elsewhere, the numbers are even more lopsided, including the Los Angeles Jewish Home, where men account for just 10 percent of residents.
"I had to live to be 86 years old before I got odds like that," said Ellis Simon, a retiree there.
Simon has grown used to hearing his name repeated by admiring ladies as he walks through the dining room. At one time, he boasted three simultaneous girlfriends, but two have since died.
"I don't see how he keeps from getting killed," said Brett Fielder, the home's chief operating officer.
Still, men don't always find what they're looking for. And women find themselves frustrated with such a small pool to pick from.
Paul Hartman, 90, lives at the Hebrew Home at Riverdale in the Bronx, where he has trouble finding someone who meets his requirements of being "50 to 70 with sex appeal." He goes to beading classes and has made dozens of pieces of jewelry, but has no one to give them to.
"I'm outnumbered and I'm still lonely as hell," he said. "There's not a decent woman to talk to here."
Just outside the city at Atria Lynbrook on Long Island, 88-year-old Mary Palmeri, a retired nurse, is quick with a joke and wouldn't mind finding a man who shared her sense of humor and a bit of intellect. But no luck.
"There's nothing to get excited about," she said. "There's no love material."
Back at Edgewater, the lights are dim and the gold balloons are shaped into a giant heart. Just a few men are sprinkled about, and most of them are married. The ones who aren't have learned they hold newfound appeal in a place where they're so outnumbered.
"All of a sudden, you're the most popular guy in the world. You're eligible," said 83-year-old Richard Stock, whose wife died about three years ago. "All my life I wanted that attention."
Stock wasn't sure he'd ever set his eyes on another woman again, but he met Dee Bardo about two years ago and they fell in love. The song winds down and he leans in for a kiss. And when it's time to go, they walk away with hands clasped.