Walter Cronkite, respected for his wisdom, once said, “It is heartening to know that when young people seek sage advice these days, many are turning to the ElderWisdomCircle™. I continue to be impressed by the candor and insight of these elders.”
Once a grandparent, always a grandparent. With age comes wisdom. Combine these two insights and you have what may have prompted a group of seniors at St. Anne’s Retirement Community in West Hempfield Township to form an ElderWisdomCircle nearly 10 years ago.
The ElderWisdomCircle™ is an intergenerational, online service that pairs a network of seniors from the United States and Canada with young advice seekers in need of support. The letter-writers hail from virtually all over the world and may not have grandparents to advise them on problematic topics that involve family, relationships, friends, school, jobs, etc.
The seniors provide caring and empathetic advice based on their own life experiences.
Founded in 2001 by Doug Meckelson, this non-profit organization is based in San Francisco and boasts more than 600 members, ages 60 through 105. In order to participate, seniors must be at least 60 years old, provide two references and complete an application to undergo a screening process in order to be approved by an advisory board.
The seniors also must sign confidentiality and conduct agreements, as well as agree to participate as members on a regular basis. The St. Anne’s group has no problem with this point, as they meet religiously (no pun intended) every Monday at 4 p.m. They usually answer two to three letters a week.
The group is led by Hope Long, director of activities at St. Anne’s, who acts as the facilitator and is the “registered user” for the ElderWisdomCircle site. This lively gathering consists of members who range in age from 85 to 98. Their pen name is “Beacons-of-Light” and they vow to live up to their name. Most recently, several of their letters of advice were chosen as the featured articles on the ElderWisdomCircle’s website. In addition, they have received the EWC Silver Award in recognition of their excellent service.
The group receives letters that are categorized under such topics as family, friendships, self-improvement, etc. It is Hope who logs onto the website weekly in order to screen for letters of interest from one or more of these categories. At each meeting, she reads the letters to the group, after which each member offers insights, shares helpful experiences from their past and provides an opinion. Hope takes notes while the group collectively decides on answers that best suit each letter’s question. She then composes the return letters, which go before the site’s Quality Review staff, and once approved, the responses are emailed back to the senders. All members agree, Hope writes a great letter, which goes a long way in making them look good. (With age, comes humility, too.)
Not all letters have easy answers. The organization has bylaws that keep elders from entering into advice they are not qualified to give. There are times when the answer must be “seek professional help” or “see a trained therapist.”
Another bylaw disallows “proselytizing,” which causes the group to refrain, much to their regret, from responding with advice such as “read your Bible more” or “you really need to form your faith.”
Young people are not the only ones who benefit from this organization. It is a win-win situation, as the elders are helped by the changing way society views seniors in America today. Their knowledge, life experiences and wisdom are truly valued and appreciated, evidence of which is reflected in the many thank-you letters received by this organization. Very often, the St. Anne’s group receives personal letters of thanks, as well as kudos from Quality Control, affirming a “job well done.” Such acknowledgements give the members great satisfaction to be recognized for their time and work.
The members of the Beacons-of-Light group are very serious about the work they do. They are candid about their personal life experiences, which they all agree aid in their decision making. They have all shared in child rearing, dealt with teenage children and their friends (as well as issues with their own friends), been through wars and the Great Depression, and have grappled with the deaths of friends and family.
But, this serious, thoughtful, warm-hearted group does not miss a chance to laugh when the opportunity presents itself. “LOL” is a term that’s not foreign to this group. “We love to laugh,” a member verifies. And, a lot of times that is exactly what these cyber-grandparents instruct advice-seeking young people to do.