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Career

Tech-savvy granny: Meet Val, a social media queen at 90

''If you’re not able to use all the technology, you’re really behind the eight ball,'' she says.

By Fleur Guthrie
She goes by the user name HiTechVal on social media and can hashtag with the best of them.
Proving you're never too old to learn new skills, Val Heffer may well be New Zealand's most tech-savvy 90-year-old, giving teenagers a run for their money with all the hours she spends on her phone.
But she'll tell you it's all in the name of supporting her son, high-profile businessman Tenby Powell, in his race to become mayor of Tauranga at next month's local body elections.
In fact, the great-granny gives a long chortle when asked if she's Tenby's unofficial social media manager.
"Very unofficial!" she tells the Weekly down the phone from her home in Mount Maunganui.
Every morning, Val reads the newspaper online, checks her Facebook notifications, then retweets or posts any political commentary associated with her son's campaign.
She doesn't go on photo-sharing platform Instagram as much ("I can't bear selfies, I think they're awful!") and while she's not afraid to share her opinions, Val prides herself on not responding to anyone who writes a criticism.
"I don't think that's helpful at all. I only reply to the positive comments," she says, adding that she usually spends around three hours a day online.
"But I admit I've been on it a lot more since my son's mayoral campaign began. We're very close and both of us are very positive in our outlook on life. If you're not, you can be dragged down and that's no good at all. Politics is a funny old game, so it'll be interesting to see how it unfolds."
Val is by Tenby's side as he runs for the Tauranga Mayoralty.
Val's first foray into the digital world came 10 years ago when Tenby bought her a phone and encouraged her to try social media, especially as a way to communicate with her two grandchildren, seven step-grandchildren and 11 great-grandchildren.
Her upbeat verdict − "Absolutely marvellous. It keeps me engaged and I remain connected.
"Obviously you've got to be careful about what you put on social media, but I haven't personally had any negative experiences, thank goodness.
"I've even made a few new friends on social media. They're younger − but then everyone's younger than me!
"I think my family would be quite cross with me if I wasn't on social media. Truly, if you're not able to use all the technology that's available now, you're really behind the eight ball in a big way. You've just got to do it.
"I pay my bills online and I love that I don't have to go into the bank."
Val's only disappointment is that none of her friends around the same age are interested in using social media.
"Which I feel is such a shame because it'd be a quick and efficient way to communicate with each other."
"Mum's extraordinary," says Tenby (59).
"She's always been really interested in technology. When I was growing up, I remember she bought an overhead projector for no reason other than it was great fun to have at home. We didn't need one; she just thought it was a great piece of technology."
He adds, "She often tells me, 'I'd love to still be here in the next 50 years to see where all this is going'."
Born in Hawke's Bay, Val says there was very little technology when she was young – a wind-up phone was about the extent of it.
"When I was growing up in the 1930s and 1940s, it was a different world and rather bland, when I come to think of it. You made your own entertainment and your connection with people, especially those in other towns, was slow."
Val with her boy Tenby when he was a tot.
After gaining her teaching diploma in music, Val decided to undertake nursing and midwifery training in Wellington before eventually taking up a tutor role at Tauranga Hospital.
"Tutors were encouraged to go and form the 'guinea pig' class for university studies for nurses. So I did it by correspondence at Massey University and graduated with a nursing degree in the 1970s."
Before retiring, Val spent four years as the matron at the Ranfurly Veterans Home and Hospital in Auckland and says it was a wonderful place to complete her career.
"The old veterans were all very dignified, very gentlemanly and such characters. I've loved every minute of caring for others. And whichever type of nursing I did, I always thought, 'This is what I like best'," she smiles.
The widower has been living independently since her beloved husband Ben, a former fighter pilot, passed away nearly four years ago.
Ben was part of a unique group of about 500 pilots who flew for the Royal NZ Navy's Fleet Air Arm during World War II. Val and her late husband met at an Auckland air show in 1987 and the "second time rounders" married a month later.
"He wasn't so interested in social media, but was keen on sport. He loved it all.
"I don't feel like I'm on my own now. I have some absolutely wonderful family who live here and they are everything to me. I am a very lucky person," says Val, who enjoys playing Mahjong every Thursday and belongs to the local Friendship Club.
"The day I can't drive anymore will be the saddest day of my life.
"For my 90th birthday, I bought myself a new zippy, purple car which is absolutely perfect for me. The number plate starts with JJN which stands for Jolly Jovy Number. Oh that might be my next hashtag!"

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