The Bodacious Belles, a women’s group in Beaufort, N.C., shows the difference a network of support can make in an aging America.

WHY WE’RE HERE

We’re exploring how America defines itself one place at a time. In Beaufort, N.C., a group of women offers a window into what contemporary aging can be in a nation that is rapidly getting older.


Reporting from Beaufort, N.C.

Martha Barnes’s 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,” one woman hollered above the din, “you better scream it!”

Ms. Barnes’s 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 Ms. 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, like 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 make 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 2010-2020, 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 preventative and health care than men. And studies have shown that participating in community activities and forming lasting ties in groups like the Belles is beneficial for older adults’ mental health and general well-being.

Lifang Hou, a professor of preventative 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,” Dr. Hou said, because they help cells function better. “It’s like nutrition for us.”

Dr. Hou said that while it is important to not over-generalize 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 years old. 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,” Ms. Barnes said.

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

Ms. 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 Mr. Barnes was in the Navy. Ms. Barnes and her husband opened up a bed-and-breakfast that had a spice shop in the back, and which is now an Airbnb. Ms. 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 — like holding hands and telling one another how beautiful they look.

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

The larger group, Sweet Potato Queens, was the creation of Jill Conner Browne in the 1980s. She is originally from Mississippi and discovered that she lived near what is billed as the Sweet Potato Capital of the World: Vardaman, Miss. She volunteered to be the queen at the annual farmers’ festival, and although that dream did not pan out, she entered herself and her friends in the Jackson, Miss., St. Patrick’s Day Parade as queens.

She started writing books at age 30 about her experience, with some of her best-selling books ranging in topic from raising children to quips on financial planning, all rooted in Ms. Conner Browne’s perspective as a Southern woman.

Now 71, Ms. Conner Browne has seen her books spawn Sweet Potato Queen chapters in more than 30 countries and across the United States, not just the South. Members convene annually for a parade in Jackson. There is also a Sweet Potato Queens musical that premiered in Houston in 2016.

Ms. Conner Browne said the Jackson parade, held around St. Patrick’s Day, is a healing event for all of the women who come, with people crossing paths and forming intimate connections. When a queen from Arizona died of cancer, her chapter sent some of her ashes to Ms. Conner Browne.

(The Belles ask that potential members read Ms. Conner Browne’s first book and pay $35 in annual dues.) Generally, the Belles and other Sweet Potato Queen chapters have members older than 50.

“The experiences are universal,” she said. “Life is hard on a good day, I don’t care who you are.”

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.

Three members — they call themselves queens or Belles interchangeably — have died since Ms. Barnes has been Queen Mother. And when that happens, the Belles spring into action, then, too. The Belles once helped the out-of-town family of a member who had passed away by cleaning out her house, and they also dedicated a float to her.

Some of the ties straddle the Belles and their lives outside the group. Ms. Barnes’s sister, Marcia Parker, 92, is also a Belle. The two lost their husbands 11 days apart just over two years ago.

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 “Fly Away” by Lenny Kravitz, and after the parade, were met with many congratulations from passers-by 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!”