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Study: Why do Snowbirds Head South Year after Year?

 

According to a new study, snowbirds who head south for the winter don’t just escape the bad weather, they also ramp up their quality of life.

Kristine Bjelde and Gregory Sanders of North Dakota State University (Fargo, ND) interviewed 25 snowbirds from the upper Midwestern United States. Most resided in mobile parks or recreational vehicles in Arizona, Texas and Florida. Participants ranged in age from 61 to 86 years of age and had wintered in the Sunbelt from two to 27 years.

The researchers found seasonal migration provided snowbirds with a change in lifestyle and an extended network of friends, which boosted their quality of life.

The findings appeared in the Journal of Applied Gerontology (June 2012).

Lifestyle

Many older adults saw their winter experience as their vacation. "We have friends there, and we golf, take long walks and just vacation," one participant said.

More than half remained in the Sunbelt for four to five months. Some stayed near their children and grandchildren. In fact, "Ellen" and "Lenny" wintered at their son’s home in Arizona. "We go there to get out of the weather and see the grandkids," explained Lenny.

Winter migration offered snowbirds a new location and a change of scene, but most engaged in activities that were part of their lives back home. Activities included volunteering and attending church services.

"Whatever I can add, you know, I would rather be adding value and I don’t mind working," said "Hugh" who volunteered in Arizona.

Another participant touted her membership in a quilting group in Mesa (AZ). The group made Christmas quilts for the residents of two local nursing homes and the Children’s Crisis Center.

Although no questions were asked about religious affiliation, researchers said most snowbirds mentioned church attendance as part of their winter experiences. Religious fellowship offered social support and opportunities to meet new friends.

Most participants maintained contact with family and friends back home through telephone and email.

Here is how "Betsy" described a typical Christmas Eve:

We go to church, then we have dinner with some of our friends, open gifts, talk to the grandkids, talk to everybody on the cell phone. The next day, Bill and I would go to the clubhouse for dinner, and sit with all our friends. You’re never really alone.

Friendships

The desire to escape the cold weather may have attracted older adults to the Sunbelt initially, but the friends they made along the way kept them coming back year after year.

Most lived in age-segregated retirement villages or parks and found that close proximity facilitated friendships.

"Like here, everybody lives within two blocks," said one male participant. "And then there are lots of activities, like the people that were here for Thanksgiving, why everybody gets together and we had a Thanksgiving dinner."

Common interests also helped to forge bonds between individuals. "I found a lot of people, and actually my friends down there have a commonality," Bill remarked. "They like golf, they’re sociable and most of them come from the [agriculture] field."

Some felt friendships were stronger at their winter residences than back home because everybody’s retired, and easy going.

In addition, many adults settled in Sunbelt communities with relatives. As one male participant explained: "So many of the people we knew, relatives and friends, ended up being there, so it was kind of a logical place."

Embracing change

As they aged, participants made changes to maintain their snowbird lifestyle. For example, some adapted their driving habits, taking alternate routes to their destination and traveling during off-peak hours to avoid heavy traffic in major cities.

Personal safety was also a concern. As "Renae" explained:

This year I’m going to go a month earlier. Last year there was a lot of ice, and I really don’t want to take a fall or look forward to the cold weather, so I decided to just try it, to go a month earlier.

Even the loss of a spouse did not deter some older adults from heading south. Take "Shelly", for example, who was undecided about returning to Texas after her husband passed away.

My kids said, what will I do all winter? And, they said I live in the country, and I could get snowed in . . . And, my friends [down south] said, what would you do? Down here you can do all kinds of things.

The snowbirds provided an informal support network, offering rides for those who could no longer drive, sharing potlucks and just hanging out.

But deteriorating health could pose problems. Most participants made little use of health services while at their winter residence. According to the study, they "saved up" their health care needs until returning home in the spring.

"Vic," 85, whose health had taken a turn for the worse, told researchers he was undecided about going to Florida again, after more than two decades. "If you become seriously ill, it would be better, I’d feel more secure here than down there for that simple reason."