Jewish World Review
http://www.jewishworldreview.com | (KRT) SANTA ANA, Calif. - "Like music from the `70s and `80s...?"
So began a personal ad in the May issue of "Blast," the monthly newsletter published by the Rock `N' Rollers, one of the newest and fastest-growing social clubs at the Leisure World-Laguna Woods retirement community.
Turns out it was a false alarm.
The ad, which ran above a group seeking "experienced mah-jongg player" and below a request from a trout fisherman willing to offer "useful, free advice," was placed by a married couple, dance enthusiasts in their late 60s. They hoped their ad would spark a popular outcry for more disco music at future club events.
Still, the movers and shakers in the Rock `N' Rollers know they can't dodge change forever. Today, the rock they twist to runs from Bill Haley through mid-era Beach Boys. But they know it won't be long before some punk newcomers will want to flail about to mid-era Bob Dylan or early Bruce Springsteen. And from there, G-d help everybody, it's just a perky skip to grinding the night away with early Madonna or Tears for Fears or The Cure.
Given that the Rock `N' Rollers started their club two years ago as part of an age-oriented putsch in Laguna Woods, Calif., who're they to say youth shouldn't be served?
"The demographics of this (town)," says Heather Sargeant, 60, the bubbly president of the Rock `N' Rollers, "they're a changin'."
After dancing around it for years, baby boomers (and people just a tick older) are hitting the age for early retirement. It's early still, and the recent stock market crash has delayed millions of middle-age parachute plans. But the reality is this: The same crowd that danced naked at Woodstock and burned their draft cards can now be found buying prunes at the Ralph's in Laguna Woods.
Boomers, the 79 million-person population bubble that has redefined achievement and self-obsession, slowly are taking over the south county Leisure World.
Rock music, any era, is the least of it.
When they're not at work, Leisure World's youngest residents are crowding the community's tennis courts and golf course, building fine art in the wood shop, and elbowing their elders out in the area's jogging trails.
Middle-age romances are blossoming. Men have been spotted wearing pony tails. At least a few homes have been decorated in styles as varied as New York loft and California surf pad.
"It's a much younger place than I expected," says Barbara Dubay, 56, who bought a Leisure World condo late last year after selling her home in Anaheim, Calif. Dubay, who still works as a supermarket clerk, says her life in Leisure World is "a lot more exciting" than it was in her old neighborhood. Activities. Parties. Outings. She's far more connected to her new neighbors she was to most of her former neighbors, even though that's where she raised her children, mostly as a single parent.
As Dubay recounts this, her phone rings. She ignores it. It's a guy, she explains later, a guy she's been dating since they met at a volleyball party a few months back.
"I'm not a big date person," Dubay says. "But a lot of people do meet each other at these parties and such."
Boomer-influenced change, mostly subtle, touches every aspect of Leisure World life. The clubhouses sometimes stay open later. The local supermarkets seem to be stocking more health food. And more than a few residents jokingly wonder what some of the newcomers are growing in the retirement community's co-op public gardens.
"Some friends and I celebrated Cinco de Mayo out in my garden," says Jan Hoffecker, who founded the Rock `N' Rollers. "We brought lunch and dinner and some margaritas. It was a party."
The boomer influence pops up in other ways, too.
Earlier this month, a small group held a peace vigil in front of Laguna Woods' City Hall. And about 1,000 people - some boomers, many much older - turned out in April to hear liberal commentator Robert Scheer denounce the Iraq war. It was the biggest audience yet for the pundit, who has been a regular speaker at Leisure World since the late 1980s.
"This is still a conservative place. But until a couple of years ago, when the younger people started arriving, people who hold (liberal) points of view didn't feel comfortable being so public," says Helen Leiber, 79.
"There's change in the air, and it is partly because the people here seem to be getting younger."
That change isn't strictly about age, say those closest to the trend.
"It's not just music. Not at all," says Rock `N' Roller president Sargeant, a former personnel executive.
"The people here, of any age, do all kinds of things ... and they always have, I think. But it's a different attitude now," says Sargeant, who still volunteers one day a week at her grandson's kindergarten.
"The mind-set that's common now is of a younger generation."
Technically, the coup started two years ago.
The oldest boomers turned 55 in 2001, making them old enough to own property in age-restricted Leisure World-Laguna Woods. The boomers exercised that option in droves.
Exactly 1,127 properties changed hands in the south county Leisure World two years ago, a sales spurt that grew by about 14 percent last year. Real estate agents and others who track the community say the vast majority of the new buyers are young (55-60) by Leisure World standards. Today, about 12 percent of the community's 16,500 residents fall into the 55-60 age range.
"The young ones are the ones you notice," says Frank Hill, a broker at Century 21/Rainbow Realty on El Toro Road, one of the biggest agencies selling property in Leisure World.
"It's a pretty big change."
That shift has yet to be seen at the Leisure World in Seal Beach, Calif. The older, less expensive senior community in north Orange County, with about 8,400 residents, has only 150 residents ages 55-57, according to Bill Narang, 57, the community's general manager.
"We're expecting (boomers) will move in here, and we're starting to see some already. But it's not yet a big thing here," Narang says.
Actually, it's something of an upset that any boomers are moving into any Leisure World.
It was a boomer, after all, who first uttered the phrase "Don't trust anyone over 30." The boomers also have mastered the art of cheating time, taking up everything from plastic surgery and Botox to having babies in their early 40s. It's all part of a lifestyle that, generally speaking, redefines older ideas of age-appropriate behavior.
Given all that - and given the way 39-year-old Leisure World-Laguna Woods has been portrayed over the years (Cardiac Caverns and G-d's Waiting Room were a couple of descriptions for the age-restricted community, coined, no doubt, by boomers) - it would not have been a shock if boomers didn't jump straight into Leisure World the moment they became eligible.
"We made fun of it for years," says Susan Simpson, 58, who, with husband Bob, 60, bought her late aunt's Leisure World-Laguna Woods condominium four years ago.
"When my aunt moved here (1974), the place, in our minds anyway, definitely had a different image than it does today. People seemed old to us."
"The place is a lot different than it was, and it's certainly not the place that people joked about," Simpson says. "It's more alive."
Actually, it's always been pretty lively.
When the Leisure World south county opened in 1964, the general thinking was that middle-class Americans would retire when they turned 65 or so and, if healthy, live unassisted for roughly another decade. Leisure World customers could buy a safe, active, respected life in a community that wasn't much different from other Southern California planned communities (Irvine, Mission Viejo, Laguna Niguel) then being designed for young families.
The concept clicked. Leisure World was popular from the outset and continued development through the early 1980s, topping out at about 10,000 residences, including assisted-living centers.
The place grew in other ways too, gaining power as a voting force. Four years ago, with debate raging over development of an airport at the former El Toro Marine base, Leisure World south county incorporated as a stand-alone city, Laguna Woods.
With an average age of 78 and (as per the 2000 census), only 51.8 men for every 100 women, Leisure World-Laguna Woods is a statistical oddity. Yet it's also one of the closest-knit social networks in the nation, with more than 200 clubs hooking up people interested in everything from Alcoholics Anonymous meetings to Latin.
Still, until two years ago, there was no club for baby boomers.
"I was new to Leisure World, and I wanted to make friends, so I tried to join the (social club) Nifty 50s and 60s," says Hoffecker, now 62, who moved to Leisure World after selling her family home in La Habra.
"But it turned out that the Nifty 50s and 60s were actually people in their 70s and even their 80s. Nice people. Very nice. But they had different interests than me," Hoffecker says.
To start a new, younger-oriented club, Hoffecker took out an ad in the Leisure World News, seeking people who would be interested in rock `n' roll and all that might come with it. She expected about 50 people for the first meeting. Instead, more than 150 turned out.
"We asked people if they wanted to join with the Nifty 50s and 60s, but not a single person voted for that," Hoffecker says.
So they did their own thing. Today, Rock `N' Roller membership is 310 and growing. The club's sub-groups include people interested in poker, fishing and wine tasting, among other things.
"I've got all kinds of friends. Some are single. Some are married. But we're all interested in new things and new people and in being alive. That's what's so great about it."
Even though the boomer boom in Leisure World means the generations that invented the "generation gap" are starting to live side-by-side in retirement, the shift has yet to cause much friction.
"The new residents are changing things, but not as much as they might think," says Brenda Ross, 87, a longtime Leisure World resident and former mayor of Laguna Woods.
"Maybe some of the clubs are having a harder time getting membership because the boomers are still working, and they don't have time to join clubs as much. But that's probably the biggest difference," says Ross, a former UC Irvine educator who has studied gerontology.
"You know, nobody considers themselves to be old," Ross adds, laughing. "The boomers certainly haven't invented that."
Any friction, Ross says, comes between residents who are active and residents who are less active.
"The differences in our community are probably more a function of ability than age," says Ross, who still travels and works as a volunteer regularly. "But it's been that way here for as long as I can remember."
Hoffecker and Sargeant and Simpson know their group won't always appeal to the freshest newcomers in Leisure World.
A peek at the calendar for the Rock `N' Rollers shows a live-music event in mid-June, "Bandstand Night," that will be something of a prom dance. And then, slated for mid-July, comes something different: "The British Invasion - A Tribute to the Beatles."
"Oh, that's our music too," says Sargeant. "But we know it'll change eventually. There will be younger people here, and we'll probably be seen as an older crowd.
"That's natural," Sargeant adds, laughing.
"But it's not going to happen for at least another 10 or 15 years."
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