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STEVE LOPEZ / POINTS WEST

Retirees do less relaxing these days

October 12, 2008|STEVE LOPEZ

Malcolm Robertson was hoping to coax the 8-ball into the side pocket in the billiards room of Clubhouse Three at Laguna Woods Village. But at 82, with a small but worrisome portion of his retirement funds shriveling up in the stock market, he had trouble focusing.

"My anger has been declining as my fear has been rising," said Robertson, who was trying to finish off his buddy Dick Bissell, 80, with one last shot.

Bissell, who said his wife was taking a bath on her Procter & Gamble stock, was doing his honest best to distract Robertson. He kept recommending illogical bank shots.

Finally Robertson put stick to rock, and the cue ball moved like a white mouse. It had good legs and even better eyes, kicking the 8-ball toward the side pocket, where it plunged like the Dow.

Game over.

But not the meltdown.

"I fear that my wife and I could outlive our assets," said Robertson, a retired professor of clinical psychology who has cut back on dining out and travel.

Leisure time has never been so stressful at Leisure World, or Laguna Woods Village, as the retirement community is now known. Roaming past fairways from billiards room to swimming pool to library on Thursday, I heard one screed after another about greedy lenders, shameful politicians and a generation of fools who lived beyond their means.

"If I went to buy a house with a big mortgage and the banker didn't even ask about my income, I'd walk away," said Robertson.

Credit cards, that's what gets everyone in trouble, Alice Foster said as she waited for Amigos Club canasta and pinochle at Clubhouse One.

What is a credit card but a way to buy things you don't need with money you don't have?

How could her grandson get one, no questions asked? And why does Foster get three more applications in the mail every week?

"Everybody's got to have what everybody else has," Arlene Zecca said, shaking her head in Dining Room Three and speaking loudly enough to be heard over the warbling of the Harmonaires Club, which was practicing down the hall.

And this presidential campaign?

More nonsense.

"All they do is bash each other," said Foster, who doesn't hear much of anything from Sens. John McCain and Barack Obama about the issues that burden retirees who worked hard their entire lives and now find themselves bailing out palookas and profiteers alike.

"That's because there's only two parties," said Cathy Parr, a Pennsylvania native. "Why just two parties that argue about everything? I like Ralph Nader. I got radicalized when I moved to California."

Not everyone I met is in full panic, because lots of folks switched from the market to annuities or low-risk investments as they neared retirement age. Dick Bissell, for instance, figures he'll be OK on his pension as a schoolteacher and administrator, along with his Social Security check.

But many residents still play the market, and even for those who don't, the price of gas and prescription drugs is wiping out the rare win at clubhouse bingo.

"It took me three days to open my 401(k) statement," said Julie McCollum, who couldn't bear to look at what has happened to her life savings. Finally, she took a peek.

"I lost $8,000 in one month," McCollum said. "I might have to give up golf."

Robertson and Bissell were playing kick the can during the Great Depression, and what they're seeing today synchs up with their memories and their parents' stories.

"We live in a one-story," said Robertson. "But my wife said, 'What are you going to do, jump out the window?' "

Such a shame to have all this uncertainty looming, said Zecca, because otherwise Laguna Woods is the sweet life.

"It's God's waiting place," she said, ticking off her favorite activities, which include boccie ball, shuffleboard, bingo, the Parapsychology Club and the Life After Life Club.

"I believe in life after death, and I believe in reincarnation," Zecca said. But if she stays on this earth another 10 years and her 401(k) keeps shrinking, she said, she may find herself working as a security guard here at the gates of heaven.

"What else are we going to do?" she asked. "I used to go to Carl's Jr. and pick up a hamburger. Now, I figure I better go home and have something there."

And while she's scrimping, she said, who's been living it up at the St. Regis in nearby Monarch Beach?

Those insufferable fat cats at insurance giant AIG, that's who. Yeah, the company that spent $440,000 on a retreat last month not long after an $85-billion, taxpayer-funded bailout.

"They got pedicures!" Zecca said. "We shouldn't have to pay for that."

Where were the regulators, some wondered? And what's with the party of small government ordering up bailouts that socialize debt and privatize profit?

"The Democrats aren't any better," said Alice Foster.

I wandered over to the library, where volunteer Katharine Schanc was rattled by the whole debacle.

Presidential candidates who fiddle while the empire burns. Subprime loans for those who couldn't afford them.

"People are stupid, let's face it," Schanc said. "They're stupid."

They speak truth at Laguna Woods Village.

Thank you, great generation. I heard more common sense in three hours than I've heard from Wall Street or Washington in three years.

--

steve.lopez@latimes.com

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