Five summers ago, Susan and David Dearing threw their worldly goods into a truck and headed west. Behind them were three grown children, two careers, and the log house in upstate New York that had been their home for three decades. Ahead was retirement.
Or “the stage formerly known as retirement” may be the more accurate way to put it. They weren’t thinking early-bird specials and endless rounds of golf. The Dearings were children of the ’60s. Susan, then 56, taught French and German and led student exchanges in Montreal and Europe. David, then 63, consulted, coached ski teams, and acted in local theater when he wasn’t teaching English and drama. Leisure wasn’t exactly their bag. Nor was convention. They had bucked the trend, forgoing the consumerist suburbs to raise their family close to nature.
But Susan’s mother was ill, and the only way to be nearby was to move into her retirement community, Laguna Woods Village. So the Dearings traded their mountain idyll for a tract full of—well, at the time, they might have said “old people.”
Of course, that was before they found themselves surrounded by gyrating seniors at the community’s third annual salute to Woodstock.
By 2030, more than 30 percent of Americans, most of them baby boomers, will be old enough to live in Laguna Woods Village. The lucky ones will step into the second halves of their lives with enough savings to allow them, in the new parlance, to “age in place” with solid 401(k)s, generous health insurance, paid-off houses, and attentive grown children. Meanwhile, a vast middle of the population will have to improvise.
Many will move to 55-and-older communities for the usual reasons: their money will go further, or they’ll move in to care for elderly parents, or maybe they’ll want to be near their grown kids.In Laguna Woods Village and places like it, a vanguard is reporting back: This is not your father’s retirement.
Before the 20th century, unless you were wealthy, supported by children, or blessed with a soldier’s pension, you pretty much farmed until you died.
Then came industrialization. Americans became richer and then, as the business cycle turned, dramatically poorer. Social Security was established to ease the pain of those economic swings. By 1940, five years after Social Security’s passage, only 43.5 percent of men older than 65 were still working, down from nearly 80 percent in 1880, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. After World War II, the trend accelerated as paychecks, pensions, the Social Security system, and life spans expanded.
By the mid-1950s, the stage was set for a pair of landmark projects near Phoenix, built on the then-untested premise that retirees would flock to the desert just to live their “golden years” away from winter snow and noisy teenagers. Privately developed Youngtown, Ariz., was billed in 1954 as the first retirement community in the nation. A half-dozen years later, the Del Webb Development Corp. built the more upscale Sun City on the remains of a ghost town.
Both were gambles, but both flourished. Youngtown became the home of the first AARP chapter, and thrived until 1998 when a legal challenge based on a technicality eliminated its 55-and-older restriction. On the weekend Sun City opened, 100,000 people showed up—so many that, by one executive’s account, they ran out of contracts.
In Orange County, developer Ross W. Cortese launched one Leisure World in Seal Beach in 1960, and then, a year later, another on the Saddleback Valley tract that would incorporate in 1999 as Laguna Woods Village. Retirement communities became a fixture in American culture, coloring an entire generation’s idea of late life with visions of shuffleboard and Aquabelles and Jerry Seinfeld’s parents in Del Boca Vista. Developers built, assuming they had in the burgeoning baby boom generation a ready-made resale market for age-restricted units.
They just might. John Migliaccio, director of research for the MetLife Mature Market Institute, which researches aging, says the boomer demographic is big enough to warrant the current supply of age-restricted housing, even if demand just holds steady.
But survey after survey indicates that, even if the young-old end up with the financial means, they have no intention of retiring like their parents. According to polls by Bank of America, Merrill Lynch, and Gallup, 70 to 80 percent of boomers plan to keep working, in part because the eligibility age for Social Security has risen, and in part because they enjoy working.
To appeal to that market, America’s retirement communities are shifting. Now that the first wave of baby boomers—those born in 1946—has reached its milestone 65th birthday, Laguna Woods Village and places like it are being changed from within.
Lonnie Painter is ensconced in his stucco condo in the village, leafing through a magazine about alternative medicine. Outside, Aliso Creek gurgles in a sun-dappled gully; inside, the living room smells of incense. Two guitars stand in a corner. Near the front door is a red-and-black reproduction from the 1936 film classic “Reefer Madness.”
“Our goal wasn’t to live here,” the 66-year-old former restaurateur establishes right off the bat, his gray hair pulled back in a ponytail.
He and his wife ended up here because they’d bought a village condo for her uncle in the late ’90s. At the time, they were feeling flush. Painter was a well-known local chef, his wife a therapist and artist. They had founded and sold one of Laguna Beach’s most popular restaurants, Café Zoolu.
“We had just built our dream home,” he recalls. Then, the uncle died and the stock market crashed. They sold the dream house in ’02 and moved into the condo. Painter did not go gently: “I was going, ‘Oh, God, ugh! I don’t want to be around all these old people.’ ”
But his stepson and stepgrandson were nearby, and he grew to appreciate the lush landscaping and the convenience. Laguna Woods Village, like many retirement communities, has hundreds of clubs and organizations, and Painter, an avid numismatist, joined the coin club and began making friends. The residents, many from New York and Los Angeles, were more interesting than he’d expected. “There were a lot of well-educated people—authors, professors, retired executives,” he remembers.
Some were not only his age, but shared his left-leaning political and philosophical views; in 2008, Barack Obama took about 52 percent of the vote in Laguna Woods Village.
And something else happened that year that not only impressed Painter but drew national press to the village: Acting on an earlier state voter initiative that legalized medical marijuana, the City of Laguna Woods—which consists of the gated community of Laguna Woods Village, plus some commercial property, and a few hundred people in a handful of assisted-living and senior housing complexes—became the county’s first municipality to allow pot dispensaries.
“I was a hippie flower child in the ’60s,” Painter says. “There was a time when I smoked marijuana probably daily.” He still occasionally partakes, discreetly he says, to ease the pain of his degenerative disc disease and osteoarthritis. So when the Concerned Citizens of Laguna Woods Village hosted a forum on the issue at one of the clubhouses, he wandered over.
“I knew a lot of people by then, but none who smoked that I knew of,” he recalls. After that meeting, “they started coming out of the closet.”
Soon Painter and about a dozen neighbors, ranging from retired activists to septuagenarians with cancer and multiple sclerosis, had cofounded their own nonprofit cannabis collective. Overnight, the village’s image seemed, if not forever young, then forever younger—and not just to him.
Even before the headlines about pot-smoking grannies, things were changing. The community’s fitness centers, for example, had extended their hours to accommodate a suddenly higher proportion of residents who decided to keep working rather than retire. Exercise classes had begun offering yoga, meditation, and Zumba, and Marcia Wilson, the manager of social services, says she started to notice sixtysomething neighbors who’d moved to be near ninetysomething parents now were making up about a third of her caregiver support groups.
Then there was the Baby Boomers Club, founded in 2007 by now-56-year-old Leslee Davis, who’d been living in her parents’ condo. An artisan and illustrator who since has moved to a small Kansas town, Davis says she was just hoping to meet a few people her own age. But when she and workout partner Kathie Podliska, a now-67-year-old retired insurance broker, put a notice in the community paper, more than 100 people showed up in a meeting room designed to hold 50. “They were lined up outside the door,” Podliska recalls. “I was stunned.”
The club was a relief to Leon St. Hilaire and wife Carol, who’d moved from Roanoke, Va., in 2007 to be near their son and grandchildren in Aliso Viejo.
On one of their first evenings in Laguna Woods Village, the 68-year-old Vietnam War veteran and former telephone company employee says, they went to a dinner at one of the clubhouses.“The majority of people there were all 20 years older than we were—nice people, but you felt like you were going to a Lawrence Welk concert.”
Thanks to the Baby Boomers Club, the St. Hilaires soon found themselves in a merry whirl of mixers, potlucks, road trips, and wine tastings, not to mention the weekend drum circle that started to gather, and the concerts by tribute rock bands that suddenly were being booked into the clubhouses.
“There’s been a Beach Boys tribute, and a Stevie Nicks tribute, a Beatles thing, a Neil Diamond tribute,” St. Hilaire says. “They even had a Roy Orbison impersonator. I was over at the recreation department last Thursday, and said, ‘Why don’t they take some seats out of the front and make a mosh pit so we can jump around a little bit?’ ”
The boomer effect hasn’t been exclusive to Laguna Woods Village. In Buckeye, Ariz., the senior community at Sun City Festival is luring boomers with solar-powered housing and climbing walls. At Sun City Shadow Hills in Indio, fitness centers are extending hours because 45 percent of the residents work full or part time. A Baby Boomer Singles Club at The Villages near Orlando, Fla., sparks late-middle-age romance. In Corona, the Trilogy at Glen Ivy has been experimenting with skydiving and other extreme sports; its last Labor Day picnic presented a Journey tribute band.
Older generations of retirees still dominate most retirement enclaves—or “active-living communities,” as many have been rebranded—and the “young” old remain, for now, a niche market. Less than 20 percent of boomers dream of retiring to a place in which everyone is 55 or older, according to a 2009 Del Webb survey. “I looked at it, but I just can’t stand to live in a place where hearses come and go as much as they do in there,” one sixtysomething recently remarked of Laguna Woods Village.
Village spokeswoman Heather Rasmussen says that although the average age of new buyers is 67, the average age of the village as a whole is 10 years older.
In other words, bingo and big band music still are hot tickets.
“There’s a club that my parents used to belong to,” muses Gregg Weiner, the 61-year-old president of the Baby Boomers Club, who moved from Michigan to care for his mother. “They were young when they moved here, and they called themselves The Nifty Fifties. Well, now everybody in The Nifty Fifties is 80. They just call themselves The Niftys now.”
In fact, some report a generation gap in the village. Members of the Rainbow Club, for instance—yes, they have one—say the older gay and lesbian members tend to resist raising the club’s profile, in part because many are still in the closet. A member of the Republican Club, meanwhile, sighs privately at the reluctance among elder members to accommodate the “young” Republicans by shifting luncheon meetings to evening after-work hours. “I just remind myself that I’m not going to be that way in 20 years, when the rappers come in,” she says.
Pat Feeney, a corporate librarian who has been active in the community, says arguments often break along age lines when anyone proposes opening the clubhouses to outsiders; though younger members like the idea of charging rent to defray their dues, the older members worry about security.
Painter blames age differences for one of the community’s more notorious dustups, an acrimonious affair in which older neighbors put the kibosh on his attempt, two years ago, to grow Colombian Gold for the pot collective in the community garden.
“It was a negative energy to the community,” says 80-year-old Andrew Cullinane, who complained to the garden club, which then went to the board that manages the amenities at the village. “It put all the gardeners at risk.”
Cullinane, who leased the next plot, says he has nothing against younger generations—he has seven children, 15 grandchildren, and 44 great-grandchildren, and recently organized a swim club with a boomer friend in the village. “Upstairs in my head, I’m 29,” he jokes, adding that, until a few months ago, he still worked full-time.
But, he says, he was taken aback when one of his granddaughters walked past Painter’s bamboo-fenced garden one day and reported, “Somebody’s growing good Mary Jane here.”
“If he’d wanted to grow pot for his own well-being, within the limit of the law, that was his choice,” adds Cullinane’s wife, Anne, a 78-year-old marriage and family counselor. “But this was on public land.”
Painter and the collective since have outsourced their cultivation to growers in Humboldt County and the Inland Empire—a last resort, he says, after a series of misadventures ranging from pottery mildew and bad grow lights in a Dana Point industrial building where they tried indoor cultivation, to an artist who lost a whole crop of Pineapple Thai in a police raid on his Downtown L.A. studio.
But the numbers are on Painter’s side. Nearly 77 million baby boomers are expected to file for retirement benefits during the next 20 years. For those who make it to 65, their average life expectancy is 84—and rising. From home design to health, this has implications. (For example, rates of the sexually transmitted disease chlamydia have risen every year for the past five years among Americans 55 and older, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.)
“It used to be that people worked, had fun for five or 10 years, declined, and then passed on,” says David Schreiner, a Scottsdale, Ariz., consultant specializing in retirement housing. “Today, if you’re in good shape at 65, you might live to be 95. You might have your whole adult life to live over. It’s a whole different mindset now.”
It’s 96 degrees, and the Mexican-tiled patio outside Clubhouse 2 is baking. Men cover their bald spots; women flap their necklines. Still, the crowd mills in the August sun, waiting for The Village Midiots to strike up the band.
Backstage, a 65-year-old passerby in a “Zihuatanejo” T-shirt and a peace-sign medallion brandishes a margarita at the group’s drummer. Linda Nearing, the 68-year-old percussionist, waves him off, laughing. Later, she mentions that one of the band members had brought drinks “so he could get mellow” before their set, and had brought a margarita dispenser for others to help themselves. To their amusement, the Midiots—so called for the digital MIDI files they use as backup instrumentation—have built something of a following in the village. “There’s a list of entertainers who live in the village,” says Nearing. “But we’re the first all-resident rock band.”
This is no ordinary engagement. For the past three summers, the Baby Boomers Club has put on a Woodstock Festival. The program will be over by 8:30 p.m.—in a retirement community, even the rockers turn in early—but the Midiots are the main attraction.
“We specialize in danceable tunes,” says Nearing, a lively woman who, for the occasion, sports a feather in her auburn hair and a tie-dyed T-shirt. “We really want people to dance, and we get ’em going. You should see ’em out there!”
Nearing was in her 50s nine years ago when she and her husband moved from Laguna Niguel to Laguna Woods Village. A finance manager at a Mercedes dealership, her husband had become disabled. “He couldn’t work and we couldn’t keep our house, and we had to downsize,” she says. “I thought, ‘This is a horrible place—people just move here to die.’ ”
Her husband passed six years later, after 33 years of marriage. (“No children, no pets, a lot of travel, a good life.”) She found herself grateful for the community around her. As she emerged from her grief, she made more friends, many of whom turned out to be musically inclined boomers. One night in 2009, she threw a party and Bill Farinacci brought his ukulele; a month later, at another get-together, David Anderman joined him on guitar. “It’s really true—the more you reach out for life, the more it embraces you,” says Nearing. “I think I’m doing my bucket list now, and one thing on it was always to be a rock ’n’ roll drummer.”
The Midiots practice at her place. “Most of the people in my building are at least 75,” she says. “But we’re all respectful of one other and I’ve only had one complaint.”
As she chats, her bandmates file out toward the broiling patio, where their instruments await: lead guitarist and MIDI expert Anderman, a 57-year-old tech entrepreneur who stays in the village with his elderly mother when he isn’t traveling on business; Farinacci, a 61-year-old village handyman, on harmonica, mandolin, and guitar; and 57-year-old sound engineer Will Hagle. (“He’s my boyfriend,” says Nearing.)
And the lead singer, chatting in the corner in jeans and tie-dye? None other than the reluctant New York transplant David Dearing.
“Yeah,” he says, shaking his head. “I was at Woodstock. We stayed in a big 12-person tent you can actually see in the movie.” After the move west, he says, he got involved in theater groups in Orange County; when he sang in a theatrical celebration of the 40th anniversary of Woodstock at Laguna Woods Village, Nearing persuaded him to join the band.
“I think it’s hysterical,” wife Susan Dearing says later.
But, she adds, the band is just one of many unforeseen consequences of their retirement. Their move required more than a little adjustment. Back in New York, he’d had a thriving consulting practice. All of their children, and his grandchild are on the East Coast. Their old home is surrounded by acres of forest; their new home is a two-bedroom, garageless, tile-roofed condo, and when friends come to see them, they pass through a gate flanked by a mortuary and an assisted-living mid-rise.
“We would not be here were it not for her mother, for sure,” says David, who every day thinks “about having to give things up” when he sees how his mother-in-law’s quality of life has been diminished by age and illness.
“I go to the gym,” he says. “I ride my bicycle. I ski—I’m a good skier, and I ski the top of the mountain. And I’m fully cognizant here that, at some point, I won’t be able to go to the top of the mountain anymore, that I will have to go on the middle trail. And then the littler trail. And then, eventually, maybe no trail at all.”
At the same time, though, Susan Dearing says living in a senior community such as theirs has been eye-opening. “There are people here in their 80s and 90s, and they are still taking Zumba classes and going to protest rallies. It’s inspirational.”
The community is geared to residents on retirement incomes—a comparable condo near theirs recently listed for $259,000 plus $698 in monthly fees, though smaller units are available for as little as $105,000—and the two say their modest needs are amply met by their teachers’ pensions.
She volunteers for the village’s Democratic Club and studies Spanish when she isn’t handling her mother’s affairs and overseeing her home health aides; he rides motorcycles and directs plays in the senior community. Both ski frequently and work out daily; recently they competed on the winning team in a newly organized Laguna Woods Village “Battle of the Fitness Centers.”
And they’ve made a deal: After Susan’s mother dies, David gets to pick their next retirement destination—which, they add, could well end up being another condo in the village. “Life is easy here,” Susan Dearing says.
In the meantime, there are days like the day of the Woodstock celebration, with food and music and white-haired couples shimmying in caftans and khakis. Standing in the shade outside the clubhouse, Susan adjusts her blue gypsy-style head scarf as David belts out the Rolling Stones’ “Brown Sugar,” gripping the microphone with both fists.
“Ain’t no schoolboy, but I know what I like!” her husband howls, sounding for all the world like Mick Jagger, who, in fact, is two months his senior.
Susan Dearing smiles fondly. Late though the day may be, the sun isn’t setting. Not yet.
Shawn Hubler writes the magazine’s monthly “Land’s End” column.
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This article originally appeared in the January 2012 issue of Orange Coast magazine.