We tend to think of ‘migration’ in terms of people who come to this country in search of a better life, but migration takes place within our own country as well. It’s called “internal migration.” From the new Census Bureau report, we can learn a lot about the movement patterns of older adults.

The notion that the elderly are on the move is illogical? Is it normal to think that older people tend to stay within a community where they have friends, perhaps children? With all the talk of aging in place, one might be tempted to think that older people just want to stay rooted in their place. In fact, housing preferences among the elderly may be influenced by a number of factors, most of which have to do with life changes. Children may move away, disabilities may create challenges for navigating stairs, and cognitive decline may make living alone risky. These transformations can lead to relocation, especially in the very old.

Using data from the 2015-2019 American Community Survey (US Census Bureau data collection project), we can get a glimpse of local immigration patterns for seniors. In general, the elderly were less likely to move than the young, and the reason for this gap should be somewhat clear. Young people move because of schools, jobs and the desire to find the most supportive environment to raise their families.

For those in their late 50s to 60s (sometimes called the “big guys”), the moves may become attractive again for some. At that point in life, movements are generally aimed at finding better amenities, perhaps a warmer climate, and perhaps a neighborhood with services that would better suit their needs. These movements are often experimental in nature (“Let’s see if we like it here and want to stay”).

Later in life, with the onset of physical decline, the elderly may move in to be closer to the family, for social, physical and possibly material support. Sometimes these moves are made to help adult children who struggle to juggle jobs and childcare.

In general, older people were less likely to move than younger people and most of their movements were short distances within the same county, especially for those 85 and older. These kinds of moves were primarily aimed at getting safer, more supportive homes in large residential communities of some kind.

However, despite the short-term movements of the largest population, those in the younger group (65–74) showed a similar pattern to the younger adults. The South had the largest net gains from immigration or seniors, at about 73,000 during a typical year in 2015-2019, which was greater than the West’s gains at about 8,800. The Northeast lost about 46,800 in a given year and the Midwest lost ~34,900. However, the West includes many sub-regions or divisions and those sub-regions have seen very different patterns. The mountainous division saw positive internal migration, with the Pacific division losing about 18,500 people. California suffered the biggest losses with over 19,000 people from net immigration.

Of all the states, Florida had the largest number of seniors and New York experienced the largest loss from this internal migration. Florida, at about 53,150 annually, has more than nearly doubled the nearly 21,440 seniors who moved to Arizona. In addition to seniors in somewhat smaller numbers, were Texas, South Carolina, and North Carolina.