They are retirees who migrate north at the beginning of winter and return south with the onset of spring. Some just keep on going and tour for years at a time, ending up wherever.
Sociologist Wendy Hillman caught up with the freewheeling travellers at a popular coastal caravan park in Queensland, Australia. There, over a two-month period, the grey nomads told her stories of adventure, learning, new friendships and improved health.
Hillman published her findings in the journal Aging & Society on April 12, 2012.
AHB reached Dr. Hillman at CQUniversity Australia in Rockhampton, Queensland.
Ruth Dempsey: What attracts grey nomads to the open highway?
Wendy Hillman: In the interviews, they stressed the benefits of travel: exploring Australia and learning about its geography and culture. And they welcomed opportunities for recreation and relaxation and for stopovers with friends and relations.
Grey nomads structure their journeys to suit their particular needs. They enjoy lively leisure activities with a clear emphasis on happiness and vitality.
RD: How do they cover travel costs?
WH: All of the grey nomads I interviewed were retirees. Most had finished paying off their mortgages. This is a big part of Australian life, where home ownership rates are amongst the highest in the world.
Once they have bought the large purchases like the caravan and the four wheel drive (RV), they only have to cover the cost of petrol, car registration, tires, and, of course, food.
As retirees, they are able to live quite frugally on their pensions, especially if they fish or catch crustaceans, such as lobster or crab, to eat.
Australia has universal health care coverage so the cost of medical visits and prescription drugs are relatively cheap for older adults.
RD: So what are some of their favourite activities?
WH: Fishing tops the list. I believe lawn bowls comes a close second, but bush walking, sight-seeing, visiting museums and historical sites also rate high on their list.
Also important is making friends along the way and the fantastic camaraderie at caravan parks.
One woman said she found the caravan park very social, very welcoming and very inclusive. Many play sports with fellow travellers. Get-togethers such as BBQs, afternoon tea and campfires are highly anticipated and well attended.
"Happy Hour" is a main event on the daily calendar as old friends and new acquaintances share gossip, travel tales and tips on where to go.
Other scheduled events include "Christmas in July" and group trips to local restaurants.
RD: Many talked of health concerns yet they travelled thousands of kilometres in the Australian outback . . .
WH: This is true. One study found that five per cent of grey nomads have faced a medical emergency while on the road. Some of these incidents included falls resulting in broken arms and damaged knees.
Another experienced an attack of kidney stones while travelling in a remote location.
Indeed, 14 per cent of participants in the study had problems of various kinds. Back injuries, deep vein thrombosis, fainting spells, pneumonia, severe arthritis and chest pains, to mention a few.
In all these cases, local doctors and regional hospitals provided treatment.
In my study, several nomads talked about having supportive physicians at home, who helped them plan for contingencies. For example, one couple said their doctor gave them written information to share with medical practitioners in case of an emergency.
RD: How do they tackle mechanical breakdown?
WH: Usually, when one person pulls off to the side of the road with a problem, it’s not long before another grey nomad stops to help them. It appears to be the road lore, they help one another, and they are happy to do so. Many grey nomads are also "bush mechanics".
RD: What about family and friends back home?
WH: All of the grey nomads I interviewed were in contact with their home base. Many phoned their families on a weekly basis to get the latest news. Others checked for reassurance their houses and gardens were safe.
Many used the Internet, Facebook and Skype to speak to their grandchildren. Others kept in regular contact through e-mail.
RD: So, what stands out for you about the grey nomads?
WH: As a group, the grey nomads find fulfillment and adventure in journeying around Australia. They do not think of their lives as dull, boring and over.
Along the way, they develop long-lasting friendships and enduring social networks.
They use modern technology to stay up-to-date with the world, and in touch with family, friends and especially grandchildren.
As Australia has an aging population, the expectation that there will be many more grey nomads out on the roads every year is not just a possibility, it will be an eventuality.
These older adults have a sense of freedom and adventure. They are fun-loving free spirits. They revel in the thrill and challenge of the open road.