It happens every year, as the seasons change.  Year after year, millions make the trip from the colder climes of Canada to sunnier, warmer shores.  Arizona, California, Florida—wherever they wind up, you can be sure it’ll be hundreds if not thousands of miles away from the depths of winter an accompanying flurries of snow.

It’s an annual migration worthy of David Attenborough, or Morgan Freeman (March of the Pensioners!) and it’s the journey taken every year by a select group of people in the Great White North—

“Snowbirds.”

We’ve all heard the phrase “Go West, Young Man.”  It’s a phrase which brings to mind a great many different emotions, everything from the vigor of youth to the excitement of striking out on your own to a bold new frontier, which is of course what the West embodied for many years, and continues to resonate in the popular imagination.  However, when it comes to the “snowbird” community of senior citizens, “Fly South, Old Man” may be a more fitting slogan.

So, what’s prompting these moves south, how and where do the snowbirds go, and what does this say about Canada and its relationship to its senior citizen community?  Let’s take a look.

 

Does Canada Like Seniors?

Old People by https://www.flickr.com/photos/francisco_osorio/

UK Society 51 by Francisco Osorio / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

To begin with—does Canada “like” seniors?  What prompts the move south?

It’s an odd question to ask.  After all, as we all know, Canadians are famed for being polite, and liking everyone (so long as they’re not challenging them for a face-off at center ice).  A better question might be “Do Seniors Like Canada?”  After all, they’re the ones leaving Saskatoon for sunny Palm Springs.  Canada’s healthcare system and other senior accommodations make for a great place for elderly citizens to retire with substantial comfort and care.

 

Who Are the Snowbirds?

Old Man and the Sea by https://www.flickr.com/photos/gazeronly/

Old Man and the Sea by torbakhopper HE DEAD / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

Giving the general definition of a snowbird is easy enough.  The term “snowbird” is generally understood to mean to refer to elderly residents—mostly from the Great White North of the Northern US and Canada, and sometimes including the snowier parts of the Northeastern US as well—who, while taking up residence in these areas for most of the year, “fly south for the winter.” 

But just who are these seniors who take this path?  After all, it’s not as if airfare nowadays is particularly cheap, and it’s certainly not as if every senior citizen has the means, time, or job flexibility to allow for such annual pilgrimages.

In addition, there are those among the snowbirds who fly south to escape the cold as a means of medical restoration.  Moving to a warmer climate is a classic way to try and treat certain conditions, and is a trope which is seen in real-life.  The great poet John Keats was advised to move south from England in order to combat his tuberculosis…before dying anyway at an all-to-young age 25.  Happily, this method had better results for other great figures, so much so that travel south for medical purposes became a central plot point in Henrik Ibsen’s groundbreaking masterpiece A Doll’s House

And while he wasn’t Canadian, as a Norwegian playwright, Ibsen certainly knew a thing or two about the effects of a cold winter.

What is the economic state of these snowbirds?  Generally, at least, a somewhat advantageous one.  After all, those in a lower-middle or lower class can hardly afford to travel to another place for months at a time, let alone own a second home in the Southern United States, as many snowbirds do.  As such, it will come as no surprise that the snowbirds are primarily made up of seniors who are at least middle class or higher, and have saved enough money to enable them to make the trek south. 

Furthermore, flexibility of employment is a near constant, and in some cases, a perk. You can’t have an ongoing job in Montreal and fly south to Miami—but if, say, you have an online business, or a business which is portable like, say, a traveling flea market, then travel to the southern regions of the continent is either far more allowable or even advantageous, since they could represent a whole new market in which to sell your goods.

Going south for the winter also allows for longer daylight hours, so if you’re really a fan of summer days, you can milk a few more sunny moments out of the day by heading southward.

 

Analyzing the Flight of the Snowbirds

On holiday with a caravan by https://www.flickr.com/photos/highwaysagency/

On Holiday with a Caravan by Highways Agency / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

Snowbirds don’t just fly south to avoid the winter—tax status plays a role as well.  Several states have lower taxes in the high income brackets, which can prove advantageous to middle-to-upper class snowbirds looking to skip out on not just the coldness of winter, but its high costs as well.  Gas and electricity especially can prove costly when they’re constantly needed to combat the cold up North, so residing in a southern region can help cut costs.

One tradition which has held firm throughout the years is that of the “RVer.”  RVers—as you might expect—are those who, rather than “fly south” for the winter, rumble downwards across the continental United States in a recreational vehicle.  These RVers can meet up with other snowbirds heading the same way, and in the fashion of pioneers striking out westward together, form a community over time as they share the journey there and back together.

Flocks tend to navigate by landmarks, and have favorite nesting grounds, and the same seems to hold true for snowbirds as well.  Cities such as Quartzsite in Arizona and Miami in Florida have longstanding reputations as being popular destinations for snowbirds.  This can have an impact on the culture of the area, including the encouragement of traditionally-Canadian or Northern industries carving out a mini-niche for themselves in a land dominated by heat and sand rather than cold and snow.  (And yet, even with those snowbirds flocking south in time for hockey season, the Florida Panthers and Arizona Coyotes still lag in attendance and sales.)

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Canada still loves its seniors, having a better healthcare system than the US.  That and other elements of Canadian culture can prove advantageous for Canadian seniors.  It isn’t as if it’s Canadian culture which alienates seniors—simply the cold.  As such, year after year, the March of the Seniors and Flight of the Snowbirds is sure to continue.


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