• Image about Mary Jane Martin
ILLUSTRATION BY Jens Magnusson

Need counsel but don’t know where to turn? The Elder Wisdom Circle can help.

Mary Jane Martin cared deeply for a man who was unreliable with his affections. One day he’d call, and then a week would go by before she’d hear from him again. She didn’t know whether to remain patient and hope that he’d come around or to just end the relationship and move on.

She didn’t want to talk to her close friends or family about the situation, so she sent an e-mail instead to Elder Wisdom Circle (www.elderwisdomcircle.org), a free advice website staffed by volunteers between the ages of 60 and 105 who stand ready at the keyboard to dispense a lifetime of insight via e-mail.

A few days later, she got a reply telling her to accept the fact that he’s not a good long-term romantic prospect. “They couldn’t have put it any plainer, but they couldn’t have been more compassionate,” says Martin, 50, of St. Louis. “After that, I did not make much effort to stay in touch, and it eventually died off. I really needed someone to give me logical facts instead of depending on my emotions.” She has since found happiness in another relationship.

Roughly 600 silver-haired sages answer close to 200,000 e-mails a year from around the globe, ranging in topics from relationship issues to job dissatisfaction to a toddler who won’t use the potty. Each letter receives a personal reply within 10 days, says Doug Meckelson, 49, a former financial-services professional from Walnut Creek, Calif., who founded the nonprofit site in 2001 in memory of his late grandmother.

“By the time people are 80, they’ve seen and heard everything,” he says. “Nothing shocks them.” Not even hickey troubles. A 14-year-old boy from Australia wanted a quick reply on how to disguise a neck bruise he had received from one girl before his date with another. “Dear Andy,” wrote a 73-year-old elder from Nevada who goes by the pen name Aunt-Molly. “Next time, plan ahead. But for today, buy a turtleneck.”

To access the e-mails, Elders either log on to the site from a home computer or work as a group from a nursing home or an assisted-living facility. They then sift through the thousands of inquiries received each week and choose the ones they feel most qualified to answer. Before they send their responses, a quality-control volunteer checks the appropriateness of each answer. The only topics the Elders won’t dispense advice on are legal, tax or medical issues.

Aunt-Molly usually stays away from adolescent dating drama, preferring to counsel those with family problems because she knows what it’s like to grow up in a dysfunctional household.

“Doug prefers Elders to call on their own experience. We don’t quote books,” she says. “So, when teenagers write in about their stepfather yelling at their mother or drinking too much, I can relate.”