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Leisure World Begins Youth Movement As Average Age Increases

Jay Berman is a free-lance writer and college journalism instructor

Herbert and Florence Friedman weren’t sure of the response they would receive when they started a group called the Nifty Fifties at Leisure World, in Laguna Hills, early last year.

In a community where the average age is 76 and an estimated 17 residents are over 100, the Friedmans and some of their peers believed that the younger set needed a group of its own to arrange social activities, such as dances and dinners.

Today the group, officially called the Nifty Fifties and Sixties, has more than 200 members.

Its emergence is just one sign that the retirement community is feeling its age as it approaches its 25th anniversary.

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With the average age of the 21,000 residents climbing steadily, Professional Community Management Inc., the property management firm that oversees day-to-day operations, has formed a committee to help attract younger residents. The New Resident Recruitment Committee, made up of residents, was organized early in 1988, not long after about 300 residents moved into nearby, full-care facilities that offer medical care not available at Leisure World. Vacancies are now back to normal (about 150 of the 12,736 units at any given time), but the committee is still recruiting.

“We’d like to see the average age come down a bit if possible,” said Recreation Director Debby Lamb, who has been part of Leisure World’s management team for 15 years. “Or at least not go up any more. That would be fine, and we think it’s realistic.

“We’ve been contacting large companies in Los Angeles and Orange counties--those with pre-retirement programs--and asking them to let those who might be thinking of retiring to consider us.”

Lamb said residents have been asked to tell friends about Leisure World, and the committee prepared an information sheet for them to enclose with letters or greeting cards.

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“Our residents are our best salespeople,” Lamb said. “The non-residents see how pleased our residents are, and they ask us for more information.”

Although the committee is looking for younger residents, the minimum age restriction is strict and unyielding. One spouse must be at least 55. (Lamb said the number of spouses under 45 “could be counted on one hand.”)

It would be easy to assume, given the range of ages, that there are vast differences in interests and needs among Leisure World’s residents. But apparently the generation gap is hardly noticeable.

“We have 90-year-olds who do everything the 60-year-olds do,” Lamb said. “You go to the exercise rooms, and I challenge you to tell me how old the person using the facilities might be--70, 80 or 90. Of course, whatever the activity is, they (the 90-year-olds) might not do it as fast.”

The stereotype, that younger residents want to play tennis or golf while those in their 80s or older are preoccupied with health services or more sedentary sports, is simply not true.

For example, one of the largest recreation groups at Leisure World is the 650-member Saddle Club, which has members of all ages. Retired dentist Earl Donaldson noticed two years ago when he headed the Saddle Club that many members were in their 80s.

“Some might be pretty close to 90,” said Donaldson, who is 71. “Just last year, we put up a plaque honoring those who are over 80. We call them the Over-80s Riders, and there are 28 listed on the plaque. I doubt if there’s any other place in the country with that many riders in that age group.”

Donaldson said his background is similar to that of many riders in the group. He rode as a young man in Colorado, then “did very little riding for about 40 years,” and finally got back into it at Leisure World.

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Although there are more than 200 clubs and organizations at Leisure World, the transition from the “outside world” to life behind its protective walls isn’t always easy.

“The first year here, I thought I would lose my mind,” said Ilene Snyder, 54, co-president of the Nifty Fifties who has lived in Leisure World for two years with her husband, Irwin, 60. “It seemed foreign because of so many older people. Now I wouldn’t live anywhere else.”

Ilene Snyder changed her view of Leisure World as she became more involved in social activities. They also were a big attraction for Myra Stockman, 69, co-president of the Nifty Fifties.

“If you can’t find any friends among more than 21,000 people, there’s something wrong with you,” said Stockman, who moved to Leisure World 19 months ago with her husband, Sam, 65. “We might be in our 50s and 60s, but we still have teen-age minds.”

Generally, older residents accept younger arrivals and like to help them get involved in the community. Sometimes, however, minor tensions arise.

Although Nifty Fifties members say they have encountered no serious resentment from older residents, a few tell of some awkward moments. For example, Roberta Elliott, 55, recalled that when she attended a program with her husband, Marvin, 57, not long after moving in, “a woman turned around, stared at me and said, ‘What are you two doing here? You don’t belong here.’ ”

Ilene Snyder says she regards such comments favorably. “I’ve heard that kind of thing,” she said. “Someone says, ‘You’re too young. Why are you here?’ I don’t mind. In a way, they’re telling me I still look young.”

From time to time, older residents have gone before the Golden Rain Foundation, a governing board that sets policies for the community, asking for more facilities for those who are not able to take care of themselves.

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The foundation, whose members are all residents, has always voted against such proposals--including one that would have set aside part of the Towers complex as a full-care center.

“It underscores the fact that the majority wants Leisure World to remain an active senior community,” Lamb said.

Of course, those who require assistance are allowed to have nurses, housekeepers, therapists or other aides come in, or even live with them, as their needs dictate. The practice is not discouraged, nor even monitored, Lamb said.

“It wouldn’t be a significant number,” she explained. “Sometimes someone might need assistance for a time while recuperating from an illness or injury. They don’t have to clear anything with us.”

Those who do need more assistance--and can afford it--live in the Towers complex, which includes two high-rise condominiums. There the average age is 86. Residents of the 311 Towers units are provided meals three times a day, regular housekeeping service and a nurse on call 24 hours a day. Monthly fees range from $1,000 to $1,300, depending on the size of the unit. Nonetheless, Leisure World is anything but a convalescent home, as prospective buyers are warned in a written “advisory health statement.”

“You should be active and be able to care for yourself,” the one-page flyer states. “We do not provide facilities or services to care for the physical, medical, mental or emotional health-care needs of residents.”

New residents quickly find they may have little time for the “leisure” in Leisure World because they are faced, upon moving in, with so many activities.

“We want people to know right away that they might find themselves more active than they had planned,” Lamb said. “We point out that our concept here is, and always has been, active senior living.”


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