After pursuing their careers and raising their family in the eastern Twin Cities metro, Alice and Sam Marks felt "winter-weary." They decided to migrate to a warmer climate as their working years drew to a close.
"I have fibromyalgia and a doctor said I would feel better in sea air," said Alice, who retired from teaching preschool in Roseville. "My dad was stationed in Corpus Christi, Texas, when I was a kid so I had been there and it's beautiful."
So, in their early 60s, the couple traded in their snow boots for sandals, unpacking in their newly purchased beach house in Port Aransas, an island town on Texas' Gulf Coast.
But they came to believe that the trade-off they'd made wasn't worth it.
"I had as many flare-ups as ever and we didn't spend much time outdoors; the heat felt oppressive to us," Alice said. "And we missed our kids terribly."
"We had to carry wind insurance and flood insurance and our property taxes were some of the highest in Texas, so it was more expensive than we thought it would be," added Sam, a retired music teacher. "Most of all, though, it was just not a good fit. Our Northern liberal views were out of step."
Eight years after uprooting, they returned to Minnesota, landing in Duluth.
"I guess we were kind of programmed to go south, but Minnesota Nice beats Texas friendly anytime," Sam said.
Minnesota yo-yos. Senior boomerangs. Reverse snowbirds. Nicknames abound for a small but significant demographic of script-flippers who move to Minnesota in their later years.
Experts who study residential patterns associated with aging suspect that this is a new wrinkle in post-retirement life, predicting that the number of older people who will return to spend their final days in Minnesota is likely to grow.
"The migration of older adults is real. Everyone thinks about the outflow of those in their 50s and 60s, but we then see a reversal, a turnaround of people in their 70s and 80s who move to Minnesota," said State Demographer Susan Brower. "That inflow [of older people] is about half the size of those who leave."
While Brower's office spotted the pattern by poring over U.S. Census figures, those numbers don't fully tell the tale.
"The Census shows us if people live in Minnesota one year and another state the next. There's no survey that asks, why did you move, and why now," she said. "There's no way to know if it's the same people who left who return to Minnesota or if they are new residents."
But there are logical conclusions that can be drawn.
"Those older people who move here have some connection to the state. Either they're returning to their home community or they have family living here," Brower theorized. "They have health issues and want to be closer to family in their older years."
Today's retirees can realistically expect to celebrate quite a few more birthdays in their post-work years than their parents and grandparents did.
A 2019 report by the National Center for Health Statistics, its most recent analysis, calculated the life expectancy for American men to be 76; it's five years longer for women. The fastest-growing part of the aging population has been what gerontologists call the "oldest old," people ages 85 and older.
The life that people create for themselves at the time they stop working might not suit them a decade or more down the road.
"We are in uncharted territory. With extended life spans, there is variability. Post-retirement life can have multiple phases and chapters," said Tetyana Shippee, a social gerontologist and professor in the Division of Health Policy and Management at the University of Minnesota.
"People might initially choose to live in a warmer place, but as they decline they look more closely at their access to health care and their social networks. When they consider the quality of care in Minnesota vs. other states, concerns about the weather pale," she said. "When people perceive they have less time, family relations become more important."
The disproportionate toll that the pandemic has taken on older people may drive more of them back in the future — or keep some prospective snowbirds from ever pulling up stakes and flying south, according to Joe Gaugler, director of the Center for Healthy Aging and Innovation in the School of Public Health at the U.
"When they could hop on a plane, distance wasn't a big deal but we don't know when that will feel safe again," he said. "COVID-19 has emphasized that for older people, true health, holistic health, is built on contact with loved ones. Many individuals who value their social connections and access to health care are voting with their feet."
Gaugler said that maintaining and strengthening those connections can make a difference in how and where final years are spent.
"We know from the literature that older people with close physical proximity to family to help them sometimes on a daily basis are less likely to enter long-term residential care," he said. "What's important for people to continue to live independently is having that network and those caregivers that they can rely on."
While the pull of family is strong, it's not the only factor that families should consider when an older loved one thinks about resettling.
"Sometimes it works and sometimes it blows sky-high," said John Brose, clinical director of the Associated Clinic of Psychology. Named the state's 2020 gerontologist of the year, Brose supervises a staff of 50 that focuses on the mental health concerns of older Minnesotans.
"The kids might like it when Mom and Dad come home; it gives them peace of mind. But some older people don't anticipate that the kids and grandkids will be busy doing their own things. They romanticize how much time their kids will spend with them and help them."
Brose said the death of a spouse often prompts the surviving partner to want to be nearer to familiar surroundings and loved ones.
"Their priorities shift and the world starts shrinking. In their 70s and 80s they don't golf like they once did," he said. "They have physical problems and it's viable to be close to their anchors."
Doing a 360
Sam and Alice Marks are glad that they had resettled into their Duluth bungalow with a view of Lake Superior a few years before the arrival of changes brought on by the pandemic.
They reconnected with old friends and found a church. Alice joined a local writers group and Sam became conductor of the Duluth Community Orchestra.
"I had to give up playing my flute because of my arthritis but I love the people and now I'm the orchestra librarian," Alice said. "We put ourselves out there and made friends."
Now in their 70s, the Markses both manage chronic conditions but express hope that their health will hold so they will be able to continue to live independently. Sam points out that he can "still rake the roof" after a snowfall.
"We say we are never moving again; we plan to die in our sleep one hour apart," declared Alice. "But, realistically, if the day comes when we would need a lot of care we could go back to the Twin Cities, where three of our kids live."
Their foray to Texas cemented their appreciation for all that they left behind. Perhaps, Sam said, their 360-degree turn increased their contentment.
"We missed the seasons and the winters really are so beautiful," he said. "We are back in God's country. For us, the good life really is in Minnesota."
Kevyn Burger is a Minneapolis-based writer and broadcaster.