Dr. Val Farmer
Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

Flying South For The Winter

March 6, 1995

1. A snowbird is: A. An exotic northern bird who develops an affinity for southern climates. B. A term sometimes used in a snide way to describe winter visitors who stay for more than four weeks in destination states such as Arizona, Florida, California and Texas. C. A vehicle which is covered with snow and blocked in by chunks of ice after being left on the streets during snow removal.

2. When compared with stay-at-home seniors, snowbirds are: A. Younger. B. Healthier. C. Better educated. D. White collar retirees. E. Financially better off. F. More physically active. G. More likely to be a couple. H. Have more contact with friends and relatives. I. Volunteer more in their home communities. J. More likely to come from rural rather than metropolitan areas.

3. True or false:

  • There are 220,000 winter visitors in the Phoenix/Apache Junction area and 110,000 in the rest of Arizona.
  • Winter visitors in Arizona spend on average $1,200 a month for an average stay of four months.
  • Three-fourths of winter visitors have incomes of $25,000 or less.
  • The average winter visitor has migrated south for seven years.

All of the above are true. Did you pass?

How extensive is this seasonal migratory pattern? In 1989, 52 percent of senior Minnesotans traveled in winter. Eleven percent or 86,000 were snowbirds. One-third went to Arizona while Florida and California split another third. Texas got 14 percent and the rest went elsewhere.

Are these people who go south less socially connected to family and friends? Oddly enough, no. People who travel south have more social contact with friends and family than the elderly who don’t travel. They are a sociable group whose patterns of staying in touch continues despite their regular absence in the winter.

Social security income loss hits rural communities hard when high percentages of snowbirds leave. They also lose vigorous, community-minded volunteers who sustain many social service and friendship networks.

Why go south? Besides escaping the hazards of winter, what is the attraction of being a winter migrant?

There is an intense social life in trailer parks, RV parks and senior centers. They have square dances, potlucks and a huge assortment of social activities. Many parks have a hometown flavor when many people from the same town go to the same park year after year. Their glowing reports attract friends to try it out. They network with others from their state. The atmosphere approximates the gregarious atmosphere of small towns.

There are activities such as painting, crafts, rock polishing, jewelry making, reading card playing, golfing, woodworking, jogging, walking, vegetable and flower gardening, aerobics, swimming, biking and tennis. There are dances, day trips to Mexico, college classes, health clubs and opportunities to explore other interests.

People come from all walks of life. They are open, friendly and eager for good conversation. It is easy to meet people and make friends. Most are happy, dynamic, fun-loving, social people who find themselves surrounded by equally social, outgoing people.

I image it is quite a rush to move from the sterile routine of a frigid small town to the jolt of stimulation and variety available in an intensely active, friendly social world - with warm weather to boot. I also wonder if part of the appeal is freedom from volunteer responsibility back home. Winter location volunteering can be exactly what they want to do - not because of community needs or pressures.

Some "would be" snowbirds find they are too far from home and miss family and grandkids too much. Those who are bored and don’t do anything don’t like it. The same people who grump back home grump in Arizona. If they come expecting everything to be the same as back home, they will be disappointed. You need an adventuresome spirit and openness to the new and special area.

Some work-oriented Midwesterners get a glimpse of this retirement lifestyle when they are invited to visit their snowbird friends at their winter roost. The idea of this kind of retirement starts to sink in.

In general, winter visitors ease into the experience, trying it out for two or three weeks the first winter and gradually lengthening their stay as they find out if it suits them. By the third or fourth year they are confirmed snowbirds. Of those who go to Arizona, 36 percent end up buying property.

The nice thing for the folks back home is that the snowbirds don’t settle in. They fly back home just as surely as they fly south. August in Arizona can be as unbearable as January in Minnesota.

Thanks goes to Will Craig of the Center for Urban and Regional Affairs at the University of Minnesota for sharing his research on Minnesota snowbirds. Thanks also to Arizona State University economist Steve Happel, Phoenix psychologist Matilda Cantor and snowbird Marjann McNeil for insights on the snowbird experience.