Ken Dollinger - Answering requests for personal advice

Ken Dollinger

Amazingly, at age 68, I have officially been designated a “wise elder”!

In the past several months with the online Elder Wisdom Circle, I have answered more than 100 requests for help. Volunteering as an elder gives one a new awareness and understanding, depths I didn’t know I had.

Decades ago, several generations commonly shared a household, and extended family lived nearby. When advice was needed, parents, aunts, uncles, grandparents and even great-grandparents were close at hand. The young did not need to look far for wisdom.

Today, that generally is not true. People with problems ask their friends and co-workers or search the Internet for counsel. Without experience to draw on, acting on such recommendations can be damaging. Sometimes, people don’t know anyone they are willing and able to ask.

The nonprofit Elder Wisdom Circle, composed of some 600 volunteers generally older than 60, was founded a dozen years ago. Every month, these “cyber-grandparents” answer thousands of requests for help from around the world.

The range of questions and problems never ceases to amaze me. Oh, there are the frequent themes: landscaping and gardening, friendship, romance, heartache, marriage and parent/child problems. But every few letters, I discover something new, surprising and, at times, difficult.

Most assign a subject title to their queries, such as Stay or Leave, Shared Vacation Money Etiquette, Fiancé Infidelity, Wild Mood Swings, Family Feud, Non-communicating Spouse, Changing Jobs, Save My Marriage and At a Crossroads.

Some letters omit titles because the subject is too complicated. One 19-year-old explained, “I am definitely bisexual, liking both men and women” and asking, “How do I explain this to my parents?” Or a man born in India and raised in the United States who, when visiting his birthplace, was horrified to see so many women without education or jobs. He asked, “How do I create jobs for poor women?”

Responses are reviewed by administrators before they are sent to the inquirer. When medical, legal or financial advice help is needed, the writer is referred to the services of a professional. Yet, for the most part, elders have a great deal of latitude in how they answer. They are supported by EWC online reference resources and consultation with other elders as well as by their own experience and research.

Some letters present unique puzzles. One 23-year-old woman said she felt trapped in her “dirty job.” She had been a phone-sex operator for three years and couldn’t envision finding another job with that on her résumé. Actually, the answer wasn’t terribly difficult: I advised her to always be honest with employers and to show them how the nasty job made her a perfect employee. After all, what employer would not want someone who could be patient, helpful, imaginative and able to stick with unpleasant duties for three years, with demonstrated skills in customer service and problem solving? I suggested that her sincere desire to remove herself from what she was doing and thereby improve her life might appeal to a prospective employer.

Certain elders are trusted to handle serious and urgent topics such as abuse, incest, self-injury, thoughts of suicide and violent urges in addition to more typical subjects.

One 13-year-old letter writer explained she was the “odd child” who was not supposed to be born, the kid who “makes everyone’s life a living hell.” The family details were disturbing. She stated, “I just want to die; it’s my only dream.”

I gave her all the comfort and support I could in writing, specific directions for contacting professionals, and a strongly worded encouragement to seek help from a neutral third party.

I told her I would be thinking of her and worrying about her. I asked her to write back when she could tell me she had the help she needed and was feeling better about herself and her life.

Each writer of an original letter is allowed two follow-up contacts with the same elder, permitting some two-way communication. But the limit helps us avoid regular correspondence.

Writers, often young teens to middle-aged adults, give only first names. Some include their age and gender, but more information is not required. Seldom do letters indicate where writers live.

Usually, a great many facts are missing. Elders quickly become skilled at reading between the lines; sometimes, what is missing is more important than the information provided.

Their answers are signed with pen-names, never revealing personal information.

Elders check the EWC website every few days for follow-up letters and to answer a few new ones. Some handle many more.

The goal is for no letter to sit more than five days without attention. However, EWC asks that answering letters not interfere with elders’ personal lives or activities — and cautions against burn-out.

At times, an elder receives kudos from EWC for the handling of a question.

Most of the time, however, an elder does not know if the advice was helpful or not, or even whether the advice was taken. Since most elders participate because they like helping others, personal satisfaction is the motivation.

A secondary benefit is that answering requests is a mental exercise, keeping senior wits keen and minds strong. Most get much more from EWC participation than they give.

Occasionally, I receive a follow-up from someone. One or two responses were frustrating; they did not want to help themselves. Many are positive and thankful. One man was so happy with the advice, he made a donation to EWC.

Unfortunately, not everyone follows up. I still anxiously wait to hear from the young teen dreaming of death.

But lack of response does not interfere with answering more letters; the need is too large to ignore. In fact, I have four letters waiting for my attention — and one will be difficult. Fortunately, the other three will be simple and fun.

If you are interested in becoming an elder, visit www.elderwisdomcircle .org, where you may read sample elder advice letters and complete an application.

Guest writer Ken Dollinger moved to McMinnville in 1990 with his wife, Linda, to open a bookstore, which was subsequently sold. He is now retired from a career in manufacturing logistics and enjoys fishing, bird hunting, traveling and being open to new experiences.

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