As a cross-country truck driver for years, Arthur Thompson often met new people on the road, many of whom became friends.
But since he retired three years ago for medical reasons, Thompson has found a different way to meet people: eons.com - a social networking site for "baby boomers and beyond."
With its many online "groups," and message-posting functions, eons.com has become the MySpace, Facebook or Friendster for older users who want more out of their social networking than chit-chatting about parties, posting pictures from bars or playing Scrabulous all day.
Though mostly associated with the youthful set, social networking is growing more popular, and useful, with middle-aged and older Americans who use it to share information, learn new things and keep connected with peers. Several sites focused on baby boomers and older users have emerged in recent years, including eons.com and Third Age.com, AARP's new online community, which launched last month.
"We, as human beings, are social animals by nature," said Majd Alwan, director of the Center for Aging Services Technologies in Washington. "And as we get older ... our social-connectedness network shrinks and becomes limited. ... People generally feel the need to explore ways to expand their network and explore beyond the traditional ways, beyond the neighbor or the adult child. And this is what the Internet might be offering."
Thompson, for example, is married and has three grown daughters. But, like many people, he still longs to have discourse with nonrelatives about some of the things he's interested in, such as cruise traveling or Christianity.
"I used to run to California and back like three times a month," said Thompson, about his truck-driving years. "You got to meet different people from different walks of life, different parts of the country, different nationalities. Being retired, you don't get to experience that much anymore. The Internet is a connection for me."
Thompson, 49, of Brooklyn Park, is one example of how the baby-boom generation - those born from 1946 to 1964 - has ventured into daily online communicating.
Linda Natansohn, senior vice-president of strategic development for eons.com, said the site's membership has exploded in the last year and half. Launched in July 2006, by Jeff Taylor - the founder of Monster.com - eons now has more than 700,000 registered members, she said.
"They really wanted to be connecting with their peers, in a place that felt safe and in a place that got them, that understood them," Natansohn said.
Kathy Lescalleette, 59, of Southwest Baltimore, joined eons in November to broaden her circle of friends and to engage in smart discussion about various topics.
Lescalleette has a "page" on eons, complete with a smiling photograph and a brief profile. She belongs to at least five "groups" on the site - one favorite is "Sexy After 50" - and regularly posts her opinions about everything from relationships to kids to politics.
"We talk about everything," she said. "It's a lot of comfort when you live alone. You get really good, honest responses."
Lescalleette, a mother, grandmother and two-time divorcee, discovered social networking in November. Since then, she doesn't feel quite as lonely.
"I've been single for 32 years. That's a long time, and either you get out there and make friends, or you're lost," she said. "I've gotten quite a few friends online now. I've got some that I actually chat off of eons with."
Some experts say it's a natural progression for baby boomers like Lescalleette and Thompson - who have been working with computers and the Internet for several years - to find themselves exploring the more complex world of social networking sites.
"As baby boomers age, many of them, they're already Internet users," said Steve Jones, a professor of communications at the University of Illinois at Chicago. "So as the baby boomer generation becomes a generation of senior citizens, they're bringing the Internet with them into their senior years."
And, as this wave of older Internet users takes on such activities as social networking, "they're really going to change the stereotype of the wired senior as being someone who is fairly limited in their Internet use," said Mary Madden, senior research specialist at the Pew Internet and American Life Project, an initiative of the Pew Research Center.
AARP, for example, has realized its members don't want to be limited to reading essays or health reports on-line: they want to share things with other members, discuss health and wellness issues and link up with other like-minded seniors.
Last month, the nation's largest membership organization for people older than 50 launched an online community, with groups set up to explore such topics as investment vehicles, current events, health and abstract art.
"As a trusted online resource, we are very excited now to give users the opportunity to set up personal profiles, connect with family and friends, share photos and videos, journal on the site and join affinity groups," said Tiffany Lundquist, a spokeswoman for Maryland's chapter of AARP.
Eons.com, based in Charlestown, Mass., has two popular features: a Longevity Calculator, which gives members an estimate of how long they're going to live; and a section of the site called Conversational Health, which allows members to advise and support each other around health concerns, such as coping with diabetes or quitting smoking.
Taylor says his two children, ages 16 and 19, use social networking sites, such as Facebook.com, to interact with friends and people they already know.
"My daughter has no interest in meeting other people online," said Taylor, 47. "Whereas one of the big phenomenons on eons, most people came without knowing other people, or maybe just one or two people. [Eons is] a massive tool where you can make new friends and have an interesting peer-to-peer environment."
Kathy Lescalleette said that the interaction with friends and even strangers on her eons page has kept her feeling youthful and relevant.
"People who think these sites are for young people, I think they're very closed-minded and I think they're old," Lescalleette said. "Old is when you give up learning and when you give up trying."