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  • NEW YORK TIMES 
                                The Bodacious Belles of Beaufort danced in the town’s annual Fourth of July Parade, in downtown Beaufort, N.C. The Belles, a chapter of The Sweet Potato Queens — an international network of more than 6,500 women’s groups that aim for a similar balance of amusement and mutual support — show the difference a network of support can make in an aging America.

    NEW YORK TIMES

    The Bodacious Belles of Beaufort danced in the town’s annual Fourth of July Parade, in downtown Beaufort, N.C. The Belles, a chapter of The Sweet Potato Queens — an international network of more than 6,500 women’s groups that aim for a similar balance of amusement and mutual support — show the difference a network of support can make in an aging America.

BEAUFORT, N.C. >> Martha Barnes’ home was buzzing. It was a Saturday in little Beaufort, N.C., time to get ready for the town’s Mardi Gras parade, and women were zigzagging around the house, applying makeup, laughing and calling out repeatedly for the Fireball Cinnamon Whisky sitting on the kitchen counter.

“If you want to say something,” a woman hollered above the din, “you better scream it!”

Barnes’ home is not a sorority house — she is 86 years old. But, for the day, it was something of the sort: the meeting spot for the Bodacious Belles — the town’s locally famous group of rambunctious retirees — eager to win best in show for the parade, again.

“We’re not very contained,” said Barnes, who is the Queen Mother of the group.

The Belles are a chapter of The Sweet Potato Queens — an international network of more than 6,500 women’s groups that aim for a similar balance of amusement and mutual support.

Throughout the year, the Belles perform in Beaufort’s holiday parades and organize activities among themselves, such as going to the movies, playing dominoes and singing karaoke. But they have known one another for years, forming more than meaningful friendships.

Of course, for many older people, isolation, declining health or a lack of financial resources makes getting older a cascade of challenges without easy solutions.

But in an aging country, in which women outlive men by about six years, the Belles are the kind of potent social network that knits older women together, as well as a window into successful aging.

The number of people 65 years or older in the United States grew rapidly from 2010 to 2020, increasing by 15.5 million, according to the Census Bureau — the largest gain ever for the older population in a single decade.

The gap in longevity, common to most parts of the world, reflects differences in biology, behavior and occupations, among other factors. For example, research indicates that estrogen in women plays an important role in combating conditions such as heart disease.

Women also are more often willing to seek preventive and health care than men. And studies have shown that participating in community activities and forming lasting ties in groups such as the Belles is beneficial for older adults’ mental health and general well-being.

Lifang Hou, a professor of preventive medicine at Northwestern University, said the positive feelings that come with seeking community — even the simple act of going to the mall or taking a walk with a friend — produce positive effects on the body.

“What these good hormones do is slow down our molecular aging,” Hou said, because they help cells function better. “It’s like nutrition for us.”

Hou said that although it is important to not overgeneralize behaviors, men tend to “value their individualism,” which can deter them from joining groups.

Beaufort (it’s pronounced BOW-firt in North Carolina, unlike the different city pronounced BYOO-furd in South Carolina), one of the oldest towns in North Carolina, was founded in the early 1700s as a fishing village. Now, its main industry is tourism, but boats still line the town’s harbor and colonial-style homes dominate the architecture.

Beaufort reflects an aging America, with retirees heading civic groups and local businesses. The town has a population shy of 5,000, with a median age of 51. The median age of the United States reached a new high of 38.9 years in 2022.

“You start on your second half of life when you move to Beaufort,” Barnes said.

The Beaufort chapter first met in 2001 and currently has 31 members ages 57 to 92. As Queen Mother, Barnes organizes the group’s meetings. Other members share in the responsibilities for planning costumes, choreography and floats for parades.

Barnes, who was born in Richmond, Va., and grew up in North Carolina, moved to Beaufort with her husband, Elmo, in 1979. The two had bounced around the country in California, Rhode Island and Washington when Barnes was in the Navy. Barnes and her husband opened a bed-and-breakfast that had a spice shop in the back, and which is now an Airbnb. Barnes has three children, who, for the most part, still live in the area.

The queens’ husbands, known as “spud studs,” help drive the Belles’ decorated golf carts during parades, and some serve on their security team, which passes out water on hot days and is there in case anything goes awry.

In a Southern culture that may traditionally reward constraint, the Belles skew opposite. They like to curse and yell and stuff Nerf balls into their bras. They don’t talk like blushing flowers, either. As one Belle told another: “You’re bad to the bone, girlfriend.”

Only one Belle has been barred from an event (she tried to go behind the counter at a local bar and grab wine).

But the Belles also share tender moments of affection and support — including holding hands and telling one another how beautiful they look.

“We’re ladies, but we also know how to have fun,” Barnes said. “We can draw the line if we get too risque.”

Throughout the years, the Belles have helped one another through the challenges of aging. A lot of the women in Beaufort and in the Belles are widowed.

But when someone loses a spouse, a queen does not have to face the struggle alone.

“The women are there with their red lipstick and funeral casserole,” said Pat Wesson, a member of the Belles and the owner of Senior Resource Connections, which puts together plans for people whose parents are aging. Her late husband had dementia and Parkinson’s.

During their Mardi Gras parade, people honked and cheered for the Belles, who were dressed as butterflies and were the final group in the procession and the self-proclaimed “grand finale.” They danced to Lenny Kravitz’s “Fly Away” and, after the parade, were met with many congratulations from passersby who said they were “brilliant.”

They gathered at their usual spot in a bar’s courtyard, where they learned the news: They had won the parade (again). With their glasses raised, it was time for a toast, which they shouted in unison: “Long live the queens!”

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