ROCKLEIGH, N.J. (AP) — Michael Shapiro draped his arm around his girlfriend's shoulders and then gently pulled her closer for a slow kiss on the lips.

He was rewarded with a movie star smile.

"I did a lot of praying, and my prayers were answered," said Charlotte Poole, Shapiro's girlfriend-turned-fianceé. "I love him so much."

Most people associate romance with young, wrinkle-free couples who have never owned a pair of reading glasses.

Then there's Charlotte and Michael: As they stroll hand-in-hand through the Jewish Home at Rockleigh, they could be mistaken for giddy teenagers in love. Except that she is nearly 69 and sight-impaired, and, at age 73, he uses a walker.

In this stage of life, they've been through enough to know what is most consequential. They have witnessed illness, misfortune and death. They're acutely aware of the blessing they've been given in their golden years.

They trade hugs and kisses in mid-conversation and she refers to him as "my sweetie pie" whenever she talks about him, which is practically all the time. As they sit together, hand in hand, they can't stop grinning.

"I enjoy being with her," said the typically quiet Michael. "She is beautiful inside and out."

Charlotte responds, "I love him with all my heart."

The share of New Jersey residents aged 65 and older has increased from 13.5 percent in 2010 to 15.3 percent in 2016, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The numbers will continue to rise as the baby boomers age, said Lorraine Joewono, executive director of the Bergen County Division of Senior Services, who said New Jersey's senior population is expected to reach 1,508,400 by 2020.

With the number of divorced or widowed seniors increasing, the number of people getting together later in life is also likely to rise, experts say.

Many studies have found a correlation between being in a healthy, stable relationship and a longer life. "If you are in a loving, caring relationship, it helps your mental health, it helps you to live longer," said Deborah Carr, professor of sociology at Boston University and editor of The Journal of Gerontology: Social Sciences.

"One of the reasons is that as you live longer and there are health concerns, the other person will be there to provide support, meals and promote health behavior."

On Wednesday, people around the globe will observe Valentine's Day by sending cards, roses or chocolates to loved ones. Others will contemplate the role of romance, or lack thereof, in their lives. Charlotte and Michael are living, breathing evidence that true love can strike at any point, and when it does, it's worth acknowledging.

Recently, the couple celebrated their love with a fairy tale engagement ceremony for more than 100 friends, family and staff at the home.

"It was beautiful," breathed Charlotte, a teacher and violinist who never married. "We had potato knishes, broccoli, spinach knishes, and cheese and crackers, and bagels and cream cheese. And there was a sheet cake..." She nudged Michael. "Sweetie Pie, tell her about the sheet cake."

The soft-spoken Michael, accustomed to describing things for his companion, obliged, relating that it was white, vanilla flavored and had "Congratulations" written in icing.

The best part of the whole shindig? "My gown, for one thing," Charlotte said, motioning at the chic black and silver number she was wearing again. "The speeches. The atmosphere with all our friends. I'll never forget it for as long as I live."

There's no rush to plan a wedding. For now, they are content to enjoy nearly every waking moment together, unencumbered by children, careers or mortgage payments.

"We eat breakfast, lunch and dinner together. We play bingo together. We bake together," said Charlotte. "After meals, he comes to my room and we listen to 'Jeopardy' and 'Wheel of Fortune,'" she said. "And we listen to WINS."

As they ambled out of the dining room, she holding tightly onto him, a gaggle of women at the next table looked on enviously. A lady named Margaret called out to Charlotte, "You look fabulous!" Charlotte, in her engagement dress, beamed and thanked her. Margaret turned back to her friends. "She is such a pretty girl," she said wistfully.

The pair first met 31 years ago at Temple Emanu-El in Edison.

Charlotte and her mother, who lived in Hillside, were at Sabbath services. Michael of Carteret, who was divorced with three children, was working as a security guard at Beth Israel Cemetery in Woodbridge. He stopped in to use the restroom and opted to stay for the prayer service.

"I went to temple and there was Charlotte," recalled Michael. "She's a very special lady."

At the kiddush (refreshments) following services, Charlotte overheard Michael talking and approached him. During their conversation, she hinted that she'd love a bite to eat. He promptly grabbed a plate and filled it up high.

"He got me a cookie, a fruit cup, a glass of grape juice, and a rugelach. I knew immediately that he was the one."

Soon he was accompanying her to doctor's appointments, and to violin performances she did on a voluntary basis for nursing homes. Their friendship continued for 13 years.

But they were split apart when Charlotte moved into the Jewish Home six years ago, and Michael left the country for two years. When he returned, he moved into a nursing home several hours away. Through it all, though, the pair stayed in contact.

"I always prayed for him to come back into my life," she said.

Her prayers were answered last year when he moved into the Jewish Home. Soon they were inseparable, and made the big decision to get engaged.

They asked Jewish Home's executive vice president, Sunni Herman, if they could celebrate their love with a party. Herman helped arrange for an engagement ring, gown, rabbi, and a party menu.

"How special to reunite a couple who were close for years and now are able to spend their life together in the home," said Herman, who has also helped residents arrange the dream weddings and bar or bat mitzvahs they never had.

As Charlotte talked animatedly about her 57 years of playing violin, her luck at bingo (she plays with several braille boards simultaneously), and her blowout engagement party at the home, Michael listened intently, unable to wipe the broad smile from his face.

"Go to temple, church or some organization where you can meet a nice person." Charlotte advised. "Maybe you will end up in a nursing home where you can meet someone who has the same interests as you."

Finally, she said, "Don't ever give up hope."

Michael chimed in: "I agree."

It was time for lunch. "I'm going to have chicken and vegetables," Charlotte exclaimed. "My Sweetie Pie doesn't eat chicken. He has veal."

Holding tight to his girl, Michael just nodded and smiled.




Information from: The Record (Woodland Park, N.J.),