STEVE INSKEEP, host:
If you need some motherly or grandmotherly advice, some senior citizens are ready to step in. They're part of an organization called the Elder Wisdom Circle. They dispense advice all over the world, which got NPR's Margot Adler thinking about the wisdom of the elderly.
MARGOT ADLER reporting:
There's a ceremony I first saw at a Unitarian Church. A group of women stand in a circle, according to age, youngest to oldest. The second oldest woman turns to the oldest and honors her silently by some gestures. The third oldest woman honors the first and the second oldest, and so on, until the youngest woman honors every woman in the circle. During the simple event, many women were moved to tears. The older women saying they had never experienced being honored as an old person. The younger women saying they had never experienced honoring an elder.
In a society where growing old is often not respected, Doug Meckelson, a man only in his 40s, who had a deep relationship with his grandmother, decided to create a place where seniors could dispense wisdom, it's called Elder Wisdom Circle, sort of grandparents for the cyber age.
Mr. DOUG MECKELSON (Founder, Elder Wisdom Circle): Originally, when we were setting things up, we weren't exactly sure what type of advice people were going to ask for.
ADLER: Meckeslon is former financial manager from California. Here's his idea. First, you find elders over 60. You screen them carefully. There are 250 of them now. They each go to a website and retrieve letters asking for advice. They answer them and their letters are vetted by other elders before they go out.
Jim Kowalsic(ph), an elder from Michigan who has been with the Circle from the beginning, says at first many of their of their requests were practical.
Mr. JIM KOWALSIC (Advice Giver, Elder Wisdom Circle): I've answered questions about how to start a worm farm? How do you grow roses?
ADLER: But as news of the website traveled by word of mouth, the questions got more personal and more difficult. An aunt wrote to him that she had to speak at a young child's funeral. What should I say, she wrote?
Mr. KOWALSIC: That was a toughie.
ADLER: What did you tell her?
Mr. KOWALSIC: That little child probably gave us a reason to hug, to cry together, to celebrate the life we have and go forward. That one, I spent a couple of days working on.
ADLER: Now seniors who in their 60s, and 70s, and 80s, like Kowalsic who are computer savvy can clearly dispense advice from their homes. But Meckelson had a larger idea. What about the wisdom contained in nursing homes and old age centers, among people in their 80s and 90s, many of whom are not computer literate? Why not take Elder Wisdom Circle there?
Unidentified Woman #1 (Elder Wisdom Circle Advice Giver, Asbury Methodist Village): Elder Wisdom.
Unidentified Woman #2 (Elder Wisdom Circle Advice Giver, Asbury Methodist Village): Yes.
ADLER: At Asbury Methodist Village in Gaithersburg, Maryland, Trish Maosi(ph), a facilitator in her 60s, gathers a group of elders together once a week. This week, there are 15. One woman is 106 years old. Many are in their 90s. Among the 15, ten use walkers or wheelchairs. Trish brings several letters and reads them aloud. Then there is discussion and she takes careful notes. Here's a letter from a girl about a boy she calls her best friend.
Ms. TRISH MAOSI (Facilitator, Elder Wisdom Circle): I've been confused recently about my feelings for my best friend. I'm not sure whether the fact I can see myself spending the rest of my life with him is purely a friends forever type thing, or something more. If I had a boyfriend now, there's no way he would be comfortable with the amount of time I spend talking to my best friend. But I don't think I'd want to give up any of that time. I'm not physically attracted to my best friend, and never have been. So, would I just be settling? Should I be waiting for someone I'm attracted too, who'd I'd have an equally great connection with? Or is this the real thing? Please help.
(Soundbite of laughter)
ADLER: The seniors have many things to say, but on this one they're fairly unanimous. Trish Maosi facilitates the conversation. She's joined by Barbara Snyder who's almost 89 and by Bernard Fogle, 85 and a former minister.
Ms. BARBARA SYNDER (Elder Wisdom Circle Advice Giver, Asbury Methodist Village): Why is she even thinking about a love relationship when they're good friends?
Ms. MAOSI: Because she said that if she did get a boyfriend, they'd never accept their relationship.
Ms. SNYDER: Why can't she cross that bridge when she comes to it? Why try to put it in a category at this point?
Mr. BERNARD FOGLE (Elder Wisdom Circle Advice Giver, Asbury Methodist Village): Being a best friend can be the starting point and maybe it will develop into something more. Give it time.
Ms. MAOSI: Anyone else have a comment?
ADLER: Trish Maosi will put these comments together in a letter, read it to the group the following week, and send it off.
in Pennsylvania, Sharon Morrison is in her 60s and has been with Elder Wisdom Circle since the beginning. She says so many teens write in that they have no one to talk to.
Ms. SHARON MORRISON (Advice Giver, Elder Wisdom Circle): Nobody listens to me.
ADLER: Morrison says there are some letters she feels she can't answer; letters from teenagers who cut themselves, for example. And she refers them to others with counseling experience. Or letters from India questioning arranged marriages. She specializes in letters from women and girls in difficult relationships. One teenage girl wrote that her parents took her to car rallies. And two of her parents' male friends began to fondle her and kiss her.
Ms. MORRISON: And the letter she actually wrote in was, they're both going to be at the same car show, and I don't know who to be with. Could you tell me? I urged her to talk to someone. Get some help from someone. I tried to explain to here what's going to happen to her if she kept doing that, without making her so scared that she would shut down. But it's very hard. You know, you're talking to someone across so many spaces and time.
ADLER: Morrison says when you're young, you need what she calls an authority of age. And it's not just teenagers she says. She hears from pre-teens.
Ms. MORRISON: Like this 12 year old girl, who says my boyfriend keeps trying to get me to have sex with him and I don't want to. What can I tell him? I said tell him to get the hell off you and go home. I say don't do it. You don't have to do it. You have a right to do what with your body what you choose to do. You know, make a life for yourself. Be yourself before you're somebody's girlfriend. But I think I'm probably just shouting down an empty canyon, or something, with that one.
ADLER: Doug Meckelson says Elder Wisdom Circle is not trying to take the place of a professional counselor. But in many cases, people are reaching out to them first. And they are now getting so many letters that they don't have enough people to respond. Several small newspapers are publishing the letters and responses as a column. You can also find some of them at elderwisdomcircle.org. Meckelson says what he's learned over the last four years is that seniors are not rigid, or set in their ways.
Mr. MECKELSON: Nothing shocks these folks. They've probably heard it all. They're much more empathetic and less critical than people would anticipate. And the other thing that I've learned is that they've all realized, that thing that takes us a long time, is that you can't make someone change or take your advice. They have to want to change or improve their life.
ADLER: As one elder said, We have 250 people with an average age of 72. That's 18,000 years of experience. What a resource. What a library.
Margot Adler, NPR News, New York.
INSKEEP: You can read excerpts of letters from Elder Wisdom Circle at npr.org.