Adjust the text

Report: Trading In the Rocking Chair For Life on the Road


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.

Freedom: Grey nomads revel in the freedom to go where they will. One 62-year-old male says: "There’s still a lot of frontiers left. You can go out in the desert, be miles away from anywhere and you can go places with a 4WD that not too many other people have been . . . It’s fantastic."
New friends: The opportunity to meet new people is the most positive part of the experience. "We find we meet different people – more free spirits," one 70-year-old male says. Relationships vary widely from casual acquaintance to life-long friendships. Travellers share tips on free camping areas and the best fuel stops. They help each other with repairs. "There’s always people going past," one 63-year-old male says. "Actually I helped a man the other day. He had trouble with his battery."
Adventure: There is the adventure of finding places never seen before. And wonder in the beauty and vastness of the country. "It’s your own history," as one 68-year-old male put it. "If you live in suburbia, whether Sydney or Melbourne, you haven’t got a clue what the Gulf of Carpentaria even might look like, or the type of people that might live there."
Learning: The learning is partly about learning new facts of geophysics, botany and history. As one 69-year-old man says: "I paint as I travel, learning about the culture, the history, the geography, the animals, the birds. I’ve taken hundreds and hundreds of photos of different birds of which I do painting . . . some are in galleries."

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."

Health dividend: The majority of interviewees reported improved health since adopting the grey nomad lifestyle. Most mentioned less stress, others the opportunity to follow the warmer weather.

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.