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Interview: Dressing Up and Having Fun


dr. julie stafford son

Dr. Julie Stafford Son is assistant professor in the department of recreation, sport and tourism at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Her area of research is leisure and health across the lifespan. Currently, she is investigating the health benefits of leisure-based social networks for older women, specifically the Red Hat Society.

The Red Hat Society is an international organization for middle-aged and older women with members in 30 countries, including Canada.

AHB reached Dr. Son in Champaign, Illinois.

Ruth Dempsey: Health professionals constantly stress the importance of diet and exercise for healthy aging. Leisure doesn’t seem to get the same play. Why is this?

Julie Son: I think many people don’t think about how leisure can be central to health and wellness. For instance, we know that active aging – whether it’s cognitive, physical, social or spiritual – is important for maintaining and improving health. But we seldom consider that many of these healthy, self-care activities take place during our leisure time.

Also, leisure is inherent in many aspects of healthy living. For example, you mention exercise. Many people exercise during their free time. And, for quite a few people, exercise is an enjoyable part of their leisure. They may enjoy gardening, walking the dog,
or playing with their grandkids. These activities provide physical activity, but people may engage in them more for their pleasurable qualities than for the exercise.

You also mention diet. For some people, leisure also plays an important role in diet. We all know of at least one person who says they love to cook. I’m not one of them, but I do love to bake. I bake whenever I have the free time and I really enjoy it. So cooking can have a leisure element as well.

RD: Currently, you are investigating the health benefits of leisure-based social groups for older women, specifically the Red Hat Society. Why this group?

JS: Okay, you are referring to our study in the latest issue of the Journal of Women & Aging. In fact, I was introduced to the Red Hat Society by my co-authors Careen Yarnal and Deb Kerstetter of Pennsylvania State University. My colleagues and I are very interested in the impact of leisure-based social networks for women.

The Red Hat Society provides a wonderful case study on the intersections between age, gender and class. It has several unique characteristics as a women’s organization – no obligations and no rules, other than dressing up in red hats and purple outfits! A Red Hat Society Chapter can be started anywhere, including in assisted living communities and nursing homes. Chapters are low cost and adaptable to the interests of the group. Hence, they have the flexibility that many other organizations do not.

RD: So what did you find? Are there benefits for women who participate in the Red Hat Society?

JS: Our study suggests “Red Hatters” experience a wide range of benefits. These include meeting new people and reconnecting with old friends, receiving and giving support with daily struggles and difficult life transitions, such as coping with serious illness or the loss of a loved one. The society also offers a place to be playful and invest in oneself, as well as opportunities to interact with women of different ages and socioeconomic backgrounds.

All these experiences can help bolster self-esteem, build confidence, keep negative emotions at bay and break down negative stereotypes.

RD: The actual act of dressing up seems to be important. One woman reported, “Wearing the purple clothes and red hat makes me feel bold.” Is that right?

JS: Yes, over 200 women mentioned how meaningful dressing up was for them. Some said it gave them the opportunity to be playful, transform themselves, connect with daughters and granddaughters and get positive attention from the public.

RD: Another woman said: “The Red Hat Society has gotten me out into the world, and I have made so many new friends, and am having so much fun with them. I just have a whole new outlook on life at age 72 – and feel like this is just the beginning.” This is quite the accolade!

JS: Indeed. And, that is just one quote of over 200 others in our study that mention exploring new things. Another 360 refer to making new friends. Five hundred and seventy mention having fun. Fifty-five refer to building a new life chapter, and nearly 550 express positive emotions about society involvement.

RD: What are the implications?

JS: I think there are many possible implications. Through the Red Hat Society, women create happy moments, cope with life transitions and develop a positive sense of self.

We know that positive emotions from joyful occasions can offset the downward cycle of sadness and depression and relieve stress. Social support can help us cope with negative life events. And exposure to new opportunities and identification with an organization that receives positive public attention appears to enhance our self-worth, which is linked to health protection in later life.