Grey Nomads
Текст: Tatiana Petukhova | 2019-08-05 | Фото: | 9218
They choose movement and freedom, new knowledge and experience, new acquaintances and new hobbies… We are talking about senior citizens of Australia, who, instead of being passive and conservative, instead of needing care and being surrounded by four walls for the rest of their lives, leave their homes and set on long travels across the continent. These nomadic adventure-seekers or, as they are often called, “grey nomads”, have changed the image of the aging population of Australia and have completely changed the model of aging that everyone is used to. The exact number of grey nomads who travel around Australia is unknown but scholars have estimated that several dozens of thousands of them are constantly on the move. For some of them, their trips last several months, while others can travel forever. One thing is clear — their number is invariably growing each year. We had a talk about the phenomenon of Australian “grey nomads” with Emeritus Professor of the University of Technology Sydney, researcher of aging Jenny Onyx.

— Today in many countries when people retire, they often get depressed because they suddenly get a lot of free time and they don’t know what to do with it. Is there such problem in Australia? What do Australians usually do in retirement?

Why are old people depressed with nothing to do? This can happen to some retired people and it used to be considered a major problem for men who were quite likely to die within a few months of retirement. That was when the dominant pattern involved full time work until a certain age (usually 65) then nothing. That pattern never applied to the majority of women who had a mixed history of full-time, part-time, casual paid work, home care and voluntary work.

In Australia there is a lot of emphasis on planning for retirement now, both financially and in terms of what to do for the extended period of healthy retirement. For most that will be 20 or 30 years.

So for men and women, becoming a grey nomad provides an opportunity for new adventures and many couples make this a central part of their retirement planning.

Of course, this is not the only activity for retired people. Many take up new hobbies, look after their garden (or a community garden), engage in community projects, volunteer in an organization, socialize, spend time with their children and grandchildren, including child care while parents are working, especially during school holidays (although older people do not usually live with their adult children). There are also a great many health and exercise classes and activities available for both the rich and the poor. We are all encouraged to walk a great deal. Retired people are likely to travel a lot, both within Australia and overseas. In fact, life can become too busy after retirement!

© Philip Schubert / shutterstock

— Elderly people often have health problems. What health issues do Australian retirees have and can bad health prevent a person from becoming a grey nomad?

Many grey nomads acknowledge the losses associated with impending poor health, reduced capacity to earn and a family that no longer needs them. However, far from responding to these events as evidence of the inevitable decline of aging, they respond with a sense of new-found freedom and adventure. They answer their own almost universal rhetorical question ‘So what are we supposed to do, stay home and look at the four walls and wait to die?’ with a defiant ‘No way!’ It appears that health may be a beneficial outcome of active participation rather than a prerequisite, as almost all the grey nomads reported physical and mental health benefits, despite quite varied health statuses and the risks inherent in their lifestyle.

Health is clearly an issue for older people. In fact many grey nomads are dealing with heart diseases, cancer, loss of limbs, diabetes, as well as the discomfort of arthritis and other ailments. These things do not stop them; in fact for some the prospect of poor health is actually a major reason for becoming a grey nomad.

Almost all grey nomads, when asked, report good health despite these serious issues, and most report that the grey nomad lifestyle is a healthy and relaxing way of life that has greatly improved their physical and mental health. However, they take practical steps to look after their health, including checking in with health care specialists when they are near a city. They stock up on medications while on the road, and they keep in touch with friends and relatives while travelling. Grey nomads also look out for each other, and generally emergency help is available if necessary. However grey nomads generally have a philosophical attitude to life and death; better to die while enjoying life to the full!

© Philip Schubert / shutterstock

— What is the essence of the grey nomads phenomenon? What kind of travels do they embark on?

Grey Nomads are people aged over 50 years who adopt an extended period of travel, at least 3 months, independently within their own country. Grey Nomads report that the experience is about adventure, freedom, and learning. That learning is partly about learning new facts of geophysics, botany, history, or astronomy. Partly it is an inner journey, testing their personal limits and boundaries.

Although grey nomads travel to distant, isolated places, they are seldom alone. They constantly meet other grey nomads and often agree to meet up at the next stopping place. An interesting grey nomad custom is a “happy hour” in the late afternoon, when travellers sit outside their rig with refreshments, and visit each other. Travellers from all parts of the continent and all socio-economic backgrounds thus become friends, sharing information and support, helping each other if someone is in trouble, deliberately visiting each other months and years later.

© spelio / flickr

© spelio / flickr

— Who are these people in general? Are they city residents or villagers? As far as I know, despite being retired, grey nomads still continue to practice their professional skills. How do they find people they can do something for? Is it normally volunteer work or paid work?

Grey nomads come from many backgrounds and geographical areas. About one third come from one of the major cities in Australia. About one third come from major rural centres, while the remainder come from farms and other rural locations. Most are Anglo (European Australians); very few migrant people adopt this lifestyle. Many are retired professionals, and many are trades people of various sorts. In fact, these skills are much in demand in some outback towns. I remember one case of a professional piano tuner who spent time tuning all the pianos in the small town. For the most part grey nomads are not seeking paid work, and indeed their trade certificate may well have expired. However, many grey nomads were happy to volunteer. The reasons that motivate grey nomads to do volunteer work are getting to know the local people, being able to learn some new skills or use the old ones and the desire to help the local residents.

My own research with my research partner has provided much of this information, as I was one of the first to explore this phenomenon in Australia. One of my ongoing research interests concerns aging, especially among women. I became very interested in the concept of Ulysean aging as an alternative to the contemporary models of aging, all of which draw on the central principle of decline. Aging is highly medicalized, with gerontology concerned with physical and cognitive decline, and social stereotypes of the elderly as helpless, dependent, and useless. As an aging woman myself, I was incensed by this narrow conception of aging as being all about loss and decline and never about growth. Ulysean ageing, on the other hand, is the most explicitly positive view of aging, as it explores creative methods of looking at later life, unencumbered by the obligations of economic survival and child-rearing. It involves seeking new ideas and activities, new learning and intellectual, psychological and emotional growth in the later years.

At the same time, I noticed that some older people were beginning to take extended self-drive trips around Australia, although the term ‘grey nomad’ was not yet widely used. I also bought a small motorhome. Gradually I came to understand more about the potential of this lifestyle. I subsequently had the opportunity to go around Australia on a three months’ extended trip as a grey nomad but also as a researcher. During this trip I interviewed many fellow travellers. I subsequently received funding to develop the idea of grey nomads within a volunteer program to assist outback towns. I maintained this interest as a perfect example of Ulysean aging, a concept I continue to explore beyond the grey nomad experience.

© Michele Jackson / 123rf

© Stuart Perry / shutterstock

© Philip Schubert / shutterstock

— Is it expensive to be a grey nomad? Are financial reasons the main obstacle for some people to become grey nomads?

Both rich and poor people can become grey nomads. Fifty percent of Grey Nomads are on the basic government pension. Others are wealthy, self-funded retirees. The rich may own a large eight-wheel vehicle or a caravan. Others may have a simple camper van. I have estimated that about a fifth of all grey nomads actually sold their house in order to free up sufficient funds to enjoy a more comfortable grey nomad lifestyle.

However, life on the road is not expensive. Grey nomads tend to live simply. The main ongoing expense is fuel. But if fuel prices go too high, then they simply stay longer at any one spot, often for weeks or months. Grey nomads generally avoid holiday resorts (unlike, say, American “Snowbirds”) both because of the expense but more importantly because they do not want to be organized into large commercial “cities”. Australian grey nomads particularly enjoy off-road stops, National Parks, local government showgrounds, privately owned farms, or just staying in the middle of nowhere near a river or a waterhole.

© spelio / flickr

© anne-tipodees / shutterstock

— Is there any infrastructure created specifically for these people: camps where you can spend the night, stock up water, do laundry, etc.?

There is no specific infrastructure support for grey nomads. Most towns have one or more caravan parks, and these have always been available at a small cost for travellers. Grey nomads do make use of these caravan parks when they are on the road, taking the opportunity to do their laundry, stock up on supplies, etc. But they generally prefer a minimalist park, with only the most basic facilities, so that they can spend most of their time in more interesting off-road camping places. Many grey nomads are almost entirely self-sufficient for long periods. This has created some tension with the commercial caravan industry. The industry has been encouraging caravan parks to greatly increase their facilities and to charge much higher prices, to become more of a luxury resort. Some go so far as to try to ban grey nomads from stopping at free off-road places. On at least one occasion, grey nomads responded to this threat in one town by boycotting the town altogether (news travels fast). In fact, grey nomads provide a crucial source of income for many outback towns, increasing the towns’ income by up to 50%, if the town is welcoming and the grey nomads can make use of the town’s shops, mechanics, health facilities and so on.

© anne-tipodees / shutterstock

— What, in your opinion, can we learn from grey nomads?

I think the phenomenon of the Australian grey nomads provides lots of valuable lessons, not just for the grey nomads themselves, but even more importantly for the rest of the society. Aging is not just about loss and decline but it can also be about new adventures, new learning and personal growth. Healthy aging is not about sitting at home consuming vast amounts of pills but about active participation and learning new things. Chronic health issues should not deter you. For the young it is possible to look forward to a fulfilling old age. While this is true in Australia, it may well be true in other countries too, including Russia!

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