Like other Elders, Aunt-Molly isn’t paid for her services, but offering advice online gives her a sense of purpose, she says, and can be done from her kitchen table.
Providing an opportunity for seniors to stay connected to the outside world was the impetus for creating the site, says Meckelson. Before she passed away in 1987, his grandmother, Revay Meckelson, had feared the possibility of being admitted to a nursing home and feeling removed from the rest of society.
In the late 1990s, when the bottom fell out of the financial-services industry, Meckelson found himself with time on his hands and started volunteering at senior-citizen facilities. Some places treated the patients like children, he says, occupying their time with arts and crafts projects instead of honoring the knowledge and wisdom they had picked up throughout their lives. It gave him an idea.
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.
Meckelson also realized that many people don’t have someone in their lives with whom they can talk freely about personal problems, especially a nonjudgmental grandparent figure who is willing to spend an hour or so crafting an empathetic response — even when the topic is flatulence, the best curry restaurants or even a mouse in the washing machine.
“We do get some pranks,” chuckles a 68-year-old former Marine and professional recruiter from Michigan who writes under the pen name Web and has a wicked sense of humor. When Web first joined the Wisdom Circle five years ago, he thought he’d stick to career questions, but he has since broadened his advice-giving repertoire to include anything except gardening and home improvement.
Some questions are troubling, like the ones dealing with substance abuse and suicide. “We empathize with them and tell them where they can get help,” says Web.
The elders field about 3,500 e-mails a week — 75 percent of which deal with relationships. Roughly 35 percent of the letters come from teens and people in their 20s. The site is funded by donations and grants, including one from Google, which pays for online advertising. Articles, blogs and chat boards also refer new visitors to the site.
An elder who goes by Aunt Bella wondered at first whether she, a 70-year-old former university professor from Oklahoma, would be able to provide relevant advice to generations who are facing problems she’s never encountered. It didn’t take long for her to realize that some things never change.
Teens still resent their parents, and young girls still feel despair over a boy’s fading attention. “How come he doesn’t love me anymore?” they ask. “He doesn’t text.”
Aunt Bella says while she initially had trouble understanding the all-consuming power of adolescent relationships, she now feels compassion for the brokenhearted 13- and 14-year-old kids. What they want, she says, is to know that someone cares, and it’s not unusual for her to spend hours crafting replies to strangers in need of a virtual hug.
Aunt-Molly recalls an e-mail she received from an 11-year-old girl whose mother was dying of Parkinson’s disease. The girl loved playing the flute, but she felt guilty engaging in an activity that made her happy and was going to give it up.
“I told her, ‘No, you’re not. Your mother needs you to survive,’ ” she remembers. “ ‘You need to practice so you can play for her.’ ” Aunt-Molly explains that young people don’t have any experience to call upon or a sense that things will get better. Elders, meanwhile, have learned to appreciate the journey and understand that it comes with a few potholes and fender benders. Because the circle is not a pen-pal service, advice seekers are allowed three exchanges with an elder. All correspondence is routed through the site for privacy. Occasionally, Aunt-Molly says, she receives a thank-you.
“Those are the ones I treasure,” she says. “You make these contacts, and you feel like you know them. These little miracles of connections come about. It doesn’t matter the age or the problem — we’re all connected.”