“I’m 19 years old and I want a large family wedding. Most of my family does not approve of my transgender identity, and my grandma doesn’t even know I’m trans. My mother told me not to tell her about the wedding, but I can’t lie to her as she is a big part of my life.”
“I’m 22 and I just found out that my 13-year-old sister, who I have custody of because our parents are dead, is cutting herself. She won’t talk to me about it and I don’t know what to do.”
These are excerpts from emails young people have written to an online advice column called the “Elder Wisdom Circle.” Launched in 2001, it was the brainchild of Doug Meckelson, a manager of community service projects with the financial company Charles Schwab. Doug and his grandmother were exceptionally close and spoke twice weekly by phone. “She was always encouraging, empathic, and reassuring, saying things like ‘I’m sure you did the best you could,’” Doug told me. “She let me know she was on my side.”
After Grandma died in 2001, Doug knew how lucky he’d been to have her support in his life – and how sad it is that so many young people have no wise and caring adult to turn to – and that so many older people have experience and insight that they’d love to share, but they have no one to offer it to.
Doug decided to build a bridge to link “cyber-grandparents,” older people who can impart their knowledge and good judgment, to young people with dilemmas. This bridge is the Elder Wisdom Circle (www.ElderWisdomCircle.org), where younger people with questions about family, dating, school, friendship, careers, and the like find the Elder Wisdom Circle on the internet and can post their questions to the website.
These shelter-at-home days, when it’s especially dangerous for seniors to go out and when younger people are afraid of endangering their older relatives, the Circle is especially meaningful to both age groups.
One benefit of the Circle is that it’s easy to contact people remotely with questions and older people can be in touch with younger ones who can benefit from their experience. As 71-year-old “SusanneRoseanne” [no one uses a real name] put it to me, “It’s a chance to be a mentor, a coach, an engaged, caring listener. My life experience can be used as a gift to give to younger people.”
All Elders and questioners use pseudonyms, don’t meet in person, and can follow up on a question only three times. “This is not a chat group,” Doug says.
Typical questions and answers are displayed on the website and people not in the program can use them as models to help them aid younger people in their own lives. Conversations are posted at www.ElderWisdomCircle.org, where letter exchanges are categorized by general topic (relationship, dating, sexuality, family, school, career, and so forth).
Understanding the pressures that lead people to write letters to strangers about intimate problems, Elders answer almost all letters within a day or two, even though they’re routed through a Review Team, which coaches new Elders. Questioners can ask for help with any problem, except for those involving medical, legal, tax, investment, homework, or any issues requiring specialized knowledge or familiarity with cultural norms outside of the United States.
The Circle started out with five volunteers willing to answer questions, grew to 600 Elders across North America, and then, when the difficulties of running the all-volunteer program became too much, shrank back to 125 high-performing Elders.
These “cyber-grandparents” must be at least 60 years old, with no upper age limit – the oldest has been 105. Most questioners are between 15 and 40.
People who want to be Elders apply, answer sample letters to judge their problem-solving skills, submit writing samples to see if they can clearly convey their advice, provide references, and undergo a background check to show that they really are who they say they are. All this is done online.
Once accepted, seniors make a commitment to answer at least two letters a week, and some answer many more. At least one elder has answered more than 2,000 letters in the five years she has worked with the program.
New Elders receive help and training from more experienced members of the circle. Clearly the letter about the teenager’s cutting herself demands a sophisticated, knowledgeable, and immediate answer; it will be flagged as an emergency. And the cyber-seniors self-select: that is, if an Elder does not know what to say to a questioner, she or he does not take that letter but refers it to a more experienced person in the program.
On the other hand, new Elders are given relatively simple letters to answer, like one from an eighth-grader who wrote, “I can’t stop thinking about a girl. She likes me too but I’m afraid that if we start dating other kids will make fun of us.” Although many adults might dismiss his worry as “puppy love,” the issue is important to the boy, so the Elder needs to be sensitive to his feelings and answer it respectfully.
Elders have many different backgrounds to draw on, such as graduate degrees in psychology, teaching, law, career counseling, medicine, writing, and life experiences. But they don’t give professional advice. Responders also have access to resources like a suicide hotline, the National Association for Domestic Violence, Al-Anon, and other help in the Circle’s software program.
Why do Elders give so much time and energy to answering letters from strangers? As 75-year-old “JanLynn” said, “It’s so gratifying to know that you helped someone. If you did nothing else but save someone from a horrific mistake, you know your time was well spent.” She told me about a young woman training for the Olympics whose controlling, abusing boyfriend was affecting her performance. “I told her, ‘You’ve got to get out of that relationship.’ Two or three years later a letter came in telling me she did get out of the relationship and she took the Bronze in her sport.”
And then there are letters like this one: “Dear Grandpa Matt, I forgot to thank you for one thing. Last October I wrote ‘I want to be like you’ and you answered, ‘Stop thinking what you want to be because it takes you away from who you already are.’ So the next day I recalled your words and I have been writing poems and publishing them on Facebook, which I wouldn’t be doing if you didn’t tell me this. So I want to thank you.”
Most of the time Elders don’t receive acknowledgments like these, but they know they have helped people and this is what keeps them spending time reading letters, researching resources, carefully composing their answers, and continuing to write to strangers.
To apply to become an Elder, CLICK HERE. To donate, go to www.elderwisdomcircle.org. As a completely volunteer-run organization, the Elder Wisdom Circle relies on donations to stay alive, and as a qualified IRS 501(c)(3) non-profit organization, donations are tax-deductible.
Sally Wendkos Olds has written extensively about child development, family life, human relationship and health, and has won national awards for both her book and magazine writing. She is the author or co-author of eleven books and hundreds of articles that have appeared in major national magazines. She received the lifetime achievement award from the American Society of Journalists and Authors.