“You’re never too old to play dress-up…” If you’ve ever seen a gaggle of older women wearing distinctive red hats out in the community and wanted to know more about those audacious ladies, we did too. The Red Hat Society shows senior women around the world (and younger ones, too) that senior living doesn’t mean an end to dressing up and having fun.
2013 marks the 15th anniversary of the senior women’s social group the Red Hat Society, and in those 15 years they’ve brought companionship, encouragement, and fun to 80,000-plus women in 31 countries around the world.
Their distinctive bright red hats and purple outfits have appeared in public and on TV, on national news and on The Simpsons, and they are visible everywhere fun is to be had—and Red Hatters have proven that you can have fun anywhere, from museums to musicals, from amusement parks to assisted living homes.
While “fun” may be their primary watchword, the Red Hat Society promotes the following “Five Fs” to women over 50 who are seeking a social support system:
The Founding of the Red Hat Society
Not surprisingly, it started with the hat—and with a woman named Sue Ellen Cooper. Though she’s now the society’s Exalted Queen Mother, in the beginning, Sue Ellen was just trying to find a fun birthday present for a friend. Back in 1998, she decided to give her friend a flashy red vintage hat along with a copy of the poem “Warning” by Jenny Joseph, which begins with the lines “When I am an old woman I shall wear purple / With a red hat which doesn’t go, and doesn’t suit me.”
The gift was so well received that Sue Ellen began giving similar gifts to other friends, and soon, the group decided to take the poem’s words to heart—they decided to go out to tea together in full regalia, red hats, purple dresses and all. The get-together was so successful that they formed an organized group, and before long, “sister” groups began popping up, meeting a need that had clearly been going unfulfilled. In a society that tends to stigmatize mature and older women, those same women have been asserting their right to be visible, have fun, and not be swept under the rug.
“We believe silliness is the comedy relief of life, and since we are all in it together, we might as well join red-gloved hands and go for the gusto together,” says Sue Ellen on the Red Hatters’ website. “Underneath the frivolity, we share a bond of affection, forged by common life experiences and a genuine enthusiasm for wherever life takes us next.” The Red Hatters became a family, empowering one another to enjoy life even if they had endured difficult circumstances, such as a serious illness or the loss of a spouse.
Behind the Scenes with a Red Hatter
One Sunday, about 11 years ago, Pat Stegall of Hughson, California saw a newspaper article about the Red Hat Society penned by Sue Ellen Cooper and thought, “this is for me.” She had recently retired from the local school system and was looking for a social outlet—and that was exactly what the Red Hatters offered. Pat started a group, and their first outing—a train trip to Jack London Square in Oakland—included 19 women, all proudly wearing brightly colored hats and sweatshirts with the Red Hat logo.
“It was such a fun time,” says Pat, who is also known as “Queenie P.” “People were looking at us and they wanted to know what we were doing.” Her group, which now numbers around 40 women, organizes outings for lunch, movies, plays, and other social activities. “We don’t have any rules except to have a good time.”
Of course, the companionship is just as valuable as the fun and frivolity. As a widow, Pat understands this better than most, and she appreciates being able to provide an environment where women are comfortable sharing their troubles as well as their joys. The Red Hat Society has given her “great happiness, such camaraderie, such fun with people and support with everything.
“For women that are alone, this is a wonderful, wonderful thing. I know how bad it’s been for me,” Pat says. But, with the Red Hats, “In your heart you know you have a great support group.”
The Red Hat Society in Senior Living Communities
The space for love and support that the Red Hat Society provides isn’t limited by where someone lives—chapters are available almost everywhere, from coast to coast and beyond. And although many Red Hat groups are jet-setters, those with limited mobility are welcome, too. Check your local senior center or nearby senior assisted living communities to see if they have a chapter that meets on-site.
Often, chapters that meet at a senior living facility are able to organize transportation for their get-togethers and events. That’s the case at Five Star Premier Residences in Reno, Nevada. Judi Dolan, the residence’s Lifestyle Coordinator, says their unofficial Red Hat group has lunch once a month at a place where they know they’ll have a good time.
“For our group it’s very empowering because they decide where they’re going to eat and they make the reservations, so it’s their group,” Judi says. “We provide transportation but that’s all we really do for them.”
That message of empowerment through fun and friendship is definitely getting through to women over 50, inside and outside senior living communities. Even women under 50 are joining the fun, although their hats are required to be pink instead of red.
“There’s not a heck of a lot of things for older gals that are as fun,” says Queenie P.
Are you a member of the Red Hat Society, or do you know someone who is? We want to hear more—what has the group brought to your life? Share your stories in the comments.