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The choices are changing

By Marilyn GardnerLiving page editor of The Christian Science Monitor / September 23, 1981

St. Petersburg, Fla.

It is just before 9:30 on a morning Florida vacationland brochures make the rest of the world dream of. A solitary brown pelican lazily circles in a cloudless sky, glides over Boca Ciega Bay, and half-heartedly dives for a fish. The only really hard-working creature in sight is a sandpiper skittering along the beach with a determination that seems misplaced in such a serene world.

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In a high-rise condominium overlooking the bay, elevators discharge a small group of men moving with a rather wonderful lack of urgency to their first meeting of the day. The men are dressed alike -- Bermuda shorts, knit shirts, and hats looking extra white above their tanned faces: the unofficial uniform of Florida retirement. They tote almost identical canvas bags.

On the roof of a carport Astroturf has been spread out to form a lawn bowling rink. After exchanging a few greetings, the men remove bowling balls from bags and begin.

The lawn bowling ball is a slightly elliptical object, given to unpredictable rolls. The object is to come as close as possible to a white target ball. As in shuffleboard, a player can dislodge an opponent's successful shot.

The men concentrating on the game give no hint of the diversity of their former careers. Once, it so happens, they were a physician from Kansas, a trumpet player from California, an equipment broker from Illinois.Now they are lawn bowlers in Florida.

A pleasantry passes now and then -- a bit of bantering. But mostly, as the sun rises in the sky, there is bowling.

One bowler has calculated he walks a mile and a half each morning, following his ball.

Nearly two hours later, after two games, there is a closing ritual. The men shake hands and say to one another: "Good game -- thanks." Then the balls go back in the bags, the men go back to their wives and lunch.

On the way to the elevator one bowler says to another: "Well, tomorrow we've got shuffleboard."

His companion answers: "If it's nice I'm supposed to go fishing."

Lawn bowling can be taken as the metaphor for all that is relaxed and congenial and healthful about Florida retirement -- practically the only model of retirement that exists in the popular mind.

It is easy to satirize the "retirement community" -- the Disneyland for the over-65s that seems to say: "Have fun -- or else." Often the retirement community satirizes itself, like a recent issue of the Activities Calendar of Sun City West, Ariz. The front page features a photograph of a bingo party. Row upon row of heads bow over their game cards, strethcing into the distance as far as the eye can see.

As Gordon L. Bultena and Vivian Wood have written in their scholarly study, "The American Retirement Community: Bane or Blessing?": "Prodigious efforts" have been made by the community developers "to legitimize a leisure role for retirees."

The efforts have not been in vain, according to a survey by Bultena and Wood.About 3 out of 4 of those in retirement communities are "very satisfied" with their life, compared with 57 percent of retirees outside retirement communities.

Yet many retirement specialists think these surveys reflect only surface views. To them, a fundamental question remains: Can Americans be driven by the work ethic for 65 years of their lives and then, suddenly -- American Dream II -- be switched to the play ethic?

E. Bentley Lipscomb, minority staff director of the Senate Special Committee on Aging, is skeptical: "We've inculcated in people from childhood on, that work gives value. Then the system is set up so we take that away from them.After six months they've caught every fish known to man. They've played every golf course within 200 miles. After that? . . . ."