Accidental connection regenerates old friendship

Zela Charlton got the shock of her 90-year-old life. There, on her Skype, was not only an incoming call, but the photo profile of a 100-year-old man she didn't recognise.

Now, if you believe in things like karma, fate, kismet or whatever, the tale of Zela, of Northland, and Reg Booth, of Dorset in England, will appeal. It may also persuade you that today's online world is capable of not only quality and efficient communications – but also some happy, random, human interaction.

"I live on a 10-acre block," says Zela (as we shall see later, this is a massive understatement), "and habitually go out in the morning, sit and check my email while the dog chases rabbits.

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"It was about 10am and my Skype activated – and I found myself looking at a picture of this old man. I didn't recognise him at first. Well, I mean, he was an old man; I hadn't seen him for about 35 years."

She answered the Skype call. The man on the other end said hello. What followed was a brief period of utter confusion. Reg didn't know who she was or how he had rung her. She didn't know who he was or why he was calling.

Turns out one of Reg's grandchildren had set him up with a new phone and had transferred contact details. Zela and Reg – a former colleague of her husband Alan when he was a detective in the UK – hadn't communicated for many years and then mostly by letter.

"I didn't know what was happening and neither did he," says Zela. "It made me laugh out loud – the two of us talking in complete bewilderment. He didn't know who I was, I didn't know who he was and neither of us knew why we were talking.

"Once I got over the surprise and realised who he was, we chatted away for about 15-20 minutes. It was wonderful - though he rang me again a few nights later, when I was in bed. I think he called me on my iPad which I keep by the bed. He'd done it accidentally again, so he obviously hadn't quite mastered his phone at that stage."

A centenarian and a nonagenarian on Skype (even if accidental) is not only warming, it's an illustration of the fact that many of our seniors are not as disconnected, nervous about or defeated by technology, as some might think. Many willingly embrace the internet to enhance their lives and form valuable connections.

Research by Chorus shows that, in New Zealand, over-60s are more connected to their friends, family and local communities than any other age group. They realise the importance of that connectivity – whatever form it takes – and balance a combination of online and offline tools to keep in touch and connected.

Nearly two-thirds of 60-plus people are optimistic about the future with 61 per cent keeping in touch by phone, 53 percent by email and 18 percent by messaging.

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Zela, at 90, is still very switched on as befits a woman well known in Northland for her kiwifruit growing, her art, her work as an art teacher and journalist. Thanks to a reliable broadband connection she accesses the internet whenever she wants, currently keeping an eye on the Chinese coronavirus scare as it could affect her business.

"One of my granddaughters Skypes me from time to time, I do online banking, I read the news – I like the Guardian and some of the US papers – and I do a lot of research. I am wildly curious – I am on the internet between 3-4 hours a day.

It's an incredible asset and Google is just marvellous – it's great for finding out things when the computer in your head is full up.

"It reminds me of Alice In Wonderland when Alice went down the rabbit hole and everything was different but just the same.

In their time, Zela and her husband Alan have worn many career hats – he was an art teacher, an advertising executive and a policeman; she was head of art at Kamo College for several years, worked at the Northern Advocate newspaper producing a page called Senior Forum and her art –particularly her lino prints – is well-known and sought after. She has also recently published a book of poetry.

Her Glenbervie Orchard, near Whangarei, was hand-planted in 1981 after Alan was diagnosed with cancer. He couldn't work because of regular chemotherapy sessions so the pair (who emigrated to New Zealand in 1973) changed their plans for a horses/cows/sheep two-hectare block to kiwifruit.

They knew nothing about kiwifruit but threw themselves into gaining knowledge: "We were lucky enough to have beautiful volcanic soil and the kiwifruit gave Alan something to do on the days he wasn't having chemo. Growing things doesn't take as much energy or stress as looking after animals or a job."

Alan's cancer turned out to be terminal but she and the kiwifruit are still going strong, with the orchards producing about 500,000 top quality gold kiwifruit a year. While a manager now does much of the daily work, Zela is still very much connected with the business, consulting with the manager regularly.

As for digital connectedness, she keeps in touch with friends and family – now including Reg Booth – by email and online.


SOURCE: NZME Online Panel January 2020