Snowbirds and "sunbirds" cause big shifts in Florida’s older population

December 11, 2006

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Florida’s elderly population fluctuates by nearly 20 percent over the course of a year with the winter arrival of “snowbirds” embracing warmer weather and the summer departure of “sunbirds” escaping to cooler climes, a new University of Florida study finds.

At the peak of the 2005 winter season, an estimated 818,000 snowbirds traveled from their home states or abroad to spend at least a month in Florida, while in July about 313,000 elderly Floridians left their residences to spend at least 30 consecutive days somewhere else, said Stan Smith, director of UF’s Bureau of Economic and Business Research.

“Long recognized as a permanent retirement destination, Florida appears to be a leading destination for elderly temporary migrants as well,” said Smith, whose study was published in a recent issue of the Journal of Gerontology: Social Sciences. “Yet no previous study has tried to estimate the number and timing of temporary migrants both entering and leaving Florida, or to analyze their characteristics.”

Based on telephone surveys of 7,041 respondents contacted between September 2000 and December 2003, Smith found that more than 12 percent of Florida’s permanent residents 55 and older had spent more than 30 consecutive days somewhere other than home. Eight percent went to another place in-state, while 92 percent left Florida, most frequently to a state where they had previously lived, he said.

Spending winters in Florida appears to be a preliminary step to a permanent move for many snowbirds, the study found. Nearly one in four of the survey respondents — 23 percent — who had moved permanently to Florida between 2000 and 2003 reported that had lived part of the year in the Sunshine State before moving there year-round. Furthermore, 30 percent of snowbirds reported that it was “likely” or “very likely” they would move to Florida permanently in the future, he said.

Snowbirds tended to be away from home for longer periods of time than sunbirds, according to the study, which also included information from a statewide survey of 267 hotels and motels in Florida. More than 72 percent of snowbirds spent more than three months at their secondary place of residence, compared with only 30 percent of sunbirds.

The findings have important implications for communities, which must plan for traffic congestion, additional police and fire protection, increasing demand for medical services and other needs as population increases, Smith said. Although Florida’s overall elderly population shifts by an average of nearly 20 percent from winter to summer, the shift is even greater in communities with more snowbirds, particularly in South and Central Florida, he said.

“Decisions have to be made whether to accommodate the peak population during the winter, which means having excess capacity at other times during the year, or planning for the smaller summer population, or taking an average of the two,” he said.

Seasonal in-flows of elderly residents are not confined to Florida and other Sunbelt states during the winter, Smith said. Other states that experience the shift include Colorado, North Carolina, Michigan and New York.

“The numbers are likely to increase over the next few decades as incomes grow and the baby boom generation ages,” he said.

Although nearly 83 percent of snowbirds came to Florida because of its warm winters, escaping the hot summers did not play a major role in the travel patterns of elderly Floridians. Less than 10 percent of sunbirds left their homes for weather-related reasons, with more than half departing to visit family and friends and 16 percent traveling for recreational purposes.

Snowbirds were older and healthier than sunbirds, who in turn were older and in better health than “stayers,” Floridians who spent less than 30 consecutive days a year away from home, Smith said. More than 63 percent of snowbirds rated their health as “very good” or “excellent,” compared with 55 percent of sunbirds and 49 percent of stayers, he said.

Snowbirds and sunbirds were overwhelmingly white, at 94 and 93 percent respectively, compared with 89 percent for stayers, he said.

Snowbirds were significantly more likely than sunbirds to be married, while “sunbirds” were more likely than snowbirds to be employed, Smith said. Three-fourths of all snowbirds were married, compared with 59 percent of sunbirds and 56 percent of stayers, he said.