They are not rich and not particularly healthy. Yet every year, increasing numbers of older Australians take to the road.
They climb into caravans and motor homes and travel thousands of kilometers through the Australian Outback.
The Australian grey nomads
"Grey nomads" come from all parts of Australia. They travel mostly in couples, although there are some singles also.
They are on the road for at least three months at a time. Typically, they travel all year, returning home briefly over Christmas to see the family. About 20 per cent plan to travel for at least two years, or indefinitely. For 10 weeks, researchers Jenny Onyx (University of Technology, Sydney) and Rosemary Leonard (University of Western Sydney) followed the nomads around Australia. They stopped at national parks, camping sites, bush camps and commercial caravan parks. The researchers interviewed more than 400 individuals and 26 travelling groups. They collected 216 questionnaires.
The study findings are published in the International Journal of Aging and Human Development (Vol. 64, Number 4, 2007).
On the road
According to the researchers, most grey nomads hit the road following a health scare or the loss of a loved one. Some nomads saw close friends die suddenly from a heart attack and realized it was time to move while the opportunity was still there.
Nearly half of those interviewed sold their homes to finance the trip. Many survive on a pension. Some support themselves by means of periodic casual jobs.
The nomads are Anglo-Australians, who have lived most of their working lives in Australia. Age-wise, they are over 50. Some are in their 70s.
They realize life on the road is risky. There is the danger of mechanical failure or a medical emergency far from immediate help. Most have an emergency plan in place. Importantly, they have decided the risks are worth it.
Rewards of the open road
The rewards far outshine the risks, according to these older Australians. They include freedom, new friendships, adventure, learning and improved health.
And the learning is partly about an inner journey. One 69-year-old woman traveling alone explains: "I’m learning a lot by myself. Last trip was an outside trip but I find this time it’s an inside trip and while they always have a bit of both, this one I learnt more about me than I did on the last one . . . I’ve always pushed my limits so that’s another one."
Rewriting the script for aging
Grey nomads acknowledge the losses that come with poor health, reduced capacity to earn, and a family that no longer needs them. But nomads don’t want to live out their days at home.
According to the study authors, grey nomads choose instead to take positive active control of their lives regardless of financial and health conditions. And in doing so, they rewrite society’s script for aging.