Donna Guthrie

(WOMENSENEWS)–"You only go around once, kiddo, and if you screw it up, you only got yourself to blame," says 90-something-year-old ("I’ll never tell") actress Doris Brent in deadpan delivery to an egregiously perky young woman beside her on stage.

Even though it is the middle of summer and the air conditioning is broken in tiny Shooting Star Theater of New York City, she’s got the whole audience rocking with laughter.

The play–"Mimi and Me" by Oakland University playwriting professor Kitty Dubin–is about a nursing home volunteer who tries to cheer up a cranky resident and through clever dialogue ends up being the one who is cheered.

It is part of a traveling theater project showcasing the work of six female playwrights celebrating their 60th birthdays in 2006 spearheaded by author and San Diego playwright Donna Guthrie. It is also part of a boomlet of sorts of attention paid to the value, fun and health of older women.

Guthrie co-founded the Colorado Springs Rocky Mountain Women’s Film Festival in 1988, now the longest continuously running women’s film festival in the world, according to the organization.

"We are such a youth-obsessed culture," says Guthrie. "So many times in plays the older woman is the cranky grandmother, eccentric aunt or the bitchy mother-in-law. When is the last time you saw a sexy or complex older woman role? I feel we have so much to say."

Sought Age and Complexity

She and Louisville, Ky., playwright Nancy Gall-Clayton invited female playwrights across the country to submit one-act plays. They had only two requirements: that the playwright be a woman turning 60 in 2006 and that she include complex roles for older female actresses.

The six that Guthrie and Gall-Clayton chose–including their own work–handle such subjects as dementia, marriage and destiny, often with a sense of humor.

The shows have toured five cities since the beginning of the year and the final stop will be in Waitsfield, Vt., Oct. 19-22.

Red Hatters say the senior years are perfectly suitable.

Advocacy efforts to benefit older people are also underway in Washington.

In late June the Senate reauthorized the Older Americans Act, then renamed it the Positive Aging Act and added significant recommendations from New York Senator Hillary Clinton and others.

Recognizing that health care for older Americans–defined as those 65 and older–is often fragmented and difficult to navigate, the Positive Aging Act prescribes ways for mental health services to be improved and integrated into locations where other kinds of treatment are already available.

Both the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration and the Administration on Aging will be responsible for granting funds to community centers and senior citizen facilities, prioritizing locales with the highest need.

Elderly Women Prone to Loneliness

The attention is designed to help a population traditionally vulnerable to depression. An estimated 5 million of the 32 million people 65 and older in this country–roughly 65 percent of whom are women–suffer from the disorder, according to Health World Online. One of the contributing factors is loneliness, a state common among widows and those with limited mobility.

Outside of Washington one group of women is taking its own steps to change that.

The Red Hat Society has swept the nation in a flurry of "ladies-only" lunches and red-swathed celebrations that encourage older women to get out of the house and enjoy the company of other women.

The Fullerton, Calif., organization started in April 1998 when commercial artist Sue Ellen Cooper and a group of five friends went to tea dressed in purple clothing and red hats, in the spirit of the line, "When I am an old woman I shall wear purple with a red hat which doesn’t go and doesn’t suit me," in the poem "Warning" by British author Jenny Joseph.

The organization has now grown into a "worldwide sisterhood," boasting thousands of chapters across the United States and in 30 foreign countries.

Members are primarily 50 and over, though younger women can join if they promise to keep a pink hat on until they’ve reached the ceremonial red hat age. Though no official demographic information is available, the Web site claims that women from a wide range of economic classes and occupational statuses participate.

Though Cooper is now known as the "Exalted Queen Mother," she grants permission to just about anyone to start a chapter as long as they agree to pay the $39 membership fee, dress up and reach out.

A chapter founder is generally known as the "Queen" and is responsible for organizing book clubs, poker games, lunches, teas or whatever else her local chapter wants to do.

Having Fun While Doing Nothing

As for questions about the purpose of the group, the Web site says, "The standard answer to the question, ‘What do you do?’ is . . . Nothing. Our main responsibility is to have fun."

This fun-first message is sprinkled throughout the Red Hat empire, which now includes an online Red Hat Society store where members can buy everything from travel tags to red-sequined mule shoes to dozens of varieties of red hats.

The group also offers a cookbook for sale–which boasts 1,000 recipes from "your sisters across the globe"–a series of romance novels and the bimonthly Red Hat lifestyle magazine published by Hoffman Media. Members can also sign up for Cooper’s Friday Broadcast, a free e-mail that goes out to more than 110,000 Red Hatters each week.

Red Hat Society members say the group has attracted so many women because of the "take a load off" vibe.

"It’s a great opportunity to leave all the housework behind and go out to meet for lunch once a month," says Joyce Hannigan, a 59-year-old nurse from Colorado Springs, Colo., who has been a member for about a year. "We always make heads turn in our regalia. It’s obvious we are out to have a good time."

The Red Hat mission doesn’t end at elation. The Web site slips into activist tendencies in spite of itself: "We have also discovered a ‘mission’ of sorts: to gain higher visibility for women in our age group and to reshape the way we are viewed by today’s culture."

Sandra Snider, a medical assistant and the Queen Mum and founder of Hannigan’s group, is angered by the way the entertainment industry ignores older women. "We are hardly recognized," she says. The "hot and spicy ladyz," as her chapter has dubbed themselves, combat this invisibility with fun.

"We just enjoy going out to public places once a month and letting everyone know we can dress how we want and don’t care what anyone else thinks about it," the Queen Mum says.

Courtney E. Martin is a writer, teacher and filmmaker living in Brooklyn. She is currently working on a book on her generation’s obsession with food and fitness, "Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters: The Frightening New Normalcy of Hating Your Body," which will be published on Simon and Schuster’s Free Press in spring of 2007. You can read more about Courtney’s work at

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The Rocky Mountain Women’s Film Festival:

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