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Seniors in the digital age show it’s never too late to learn

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GILLETTE, Wyo. — Beth McGee can be in two places at once.

One is in the building where she lives, the four-story home of Primrose Retirement Community in Gillette. She'll sit in a chair in her room, a nightstand to her right. Or she'll sit in a similar chair in the library on the second floor.

The other is on the waters of Mobile Bay on the shores of southern Alabama, reported the Gillette News Record.

There's an angle looking out over the boat's edge, if the bow is turned directly south just past the Gulf Shores and into the Gulf of Mexico, where the waters can look like they go on forever.

Or she can float lazily down the Tennessee River past country towns like Scottsboro, Guntersville and Muscle Shoals.

McGee's two sons, Allen and Keith, live on a house boat two or three months out of the year. This past summer when the family took the boat out for a cruise, Beth sat in a chair in Gillette, turned on her iPad and connected to FaceTime.

Through technology, she was right there with her family from more than 1,600 miles away.

"I was already on oxygen and using a walker when they got it, so I'll never get to see the boat," McGee said. "But I see it on here. I couldn't do without my iPad now."

McGee, 92, is part of a growing movement of senior citizens who have adapted their habits to fit in with today's technological wave.

In April 2012, the Pew Research Center found for the first time that more than half of older adults (defined as those age 65 or older) were internet users. In 2014, 59 percent of seniors reported they go online, a 6 percent increase in the course of just over a year.

McGee's sons turned her on to the iPad, the tablet that she cherishes so much today. She's had it for about two years now and it only took her a few weeks to learn to navigate it like a pro.

"Both of my boys decided that I should have an iPad so I can see family, friends, and that's why I've got it," she said.

McGee uses FaceTime a lot. She can see when her sons are home and ready to chat or "out driving around" based on their away message.

She also uses it to stay in touch with friends and family members on Facebook. On Jan. 3, a relative had a baby girl in Pennsylvania and McGee was able to get up-to-the-minute updates via her trusty tablet.

And when her son's family house was flooded in Louisiana, she was able to see images and videos of the damage. She kept up with their safety from states away.

"(Things) are more interesting on here," McGee said of the tablet. "Back in the day, if you wanted to know what someone was doing you'd have to talk to them on the telephone. Nothing like this."

McGee has lived in Gillette all her life, so she can remember the days of dirt roads and when telephone wires were the newest technology on the block. Now, as if in a science fiction movie, she can video chat with her family from across the country.

"It's wonderful," she said. "I really do like it."

Recording of a lifetime

Legacy is important to Diann Murdock.

She thinks about it often, in her old age, when talking with friends and family. She thinks about it especially when she sits down at the piano.

She played piano growing up, in church and school choir. She majored in piano at Sheridan College. Before that, she received private lessons and went on to teach some as well.

In her lifetime, Murdock, 84, had five children, 12 grandchildren and 10 great-grandchildren.

As she's gotten older, and since she also has taken up residency at Primrose, she has thought about leaving something behind for her family. Something to solidify the legacy, to create something timeless, something that cannot die.

With the help of a computer program that records, mixes and engineers music, Murdock is working on an album of both original interpretations of hymns and covers of classical arrangements on the piano.

"I just don't want them to forget me," Murdock said with a gentle laugh, hands clasped together. "I love my family dearly."

Murdock is another member of the older generation who has taken the torch in today's digital age and is using technology in unique ways.

"I saw my first computer 24 years ago at Sheridan College," Murdock said. "The instructor pulled this machine out, showed us how to turn it on and off and left the room."

Before going to college to get her degree in Wyoming, Murdock was born and raised in California. She remembers the days when her father told her about the future of television.

"My dad was trying to explain to me what was going to come down the line," she said. "He said, 'Diann, you're going to see all your movies in that box in the corner of the room.' I looked at him and said, 'What are you talking about?' And look where we are now."

Moving to a farm in Sheridan after getting married was a culture shock for her. In California, she had TV, telephones, the whole gamut.

"Here on the farm we had no plumbing, phones had just been put in for six-party lines and we had been given a baby pig as a wedding gift," she said. "No kidding. But I loved it. I dearly loved it."

One of Murdock's grandsons is a computer major at the University of Wyoming in Laramie. He set his grandmother up with an older model laptop that she uses frequently and for many things.

"Oh my goodness, I love every aspect of it," she said. "I can go online and look up my health. I do all of my banking on the computer. My son, when he was in Australia, I went online and used Skype, I could see his face and he could see me, and we talked every week through the computer."

Murdock called her first Skype call "fascinating."

Another reason Murdock enjoys the challenges and facets of today's technology is that it sharpens her mind.

"It keeps our minds active, you need to know that," she said. "That is very important for me. My brother died with Alzheimer's and my sister has advanced senile dementia. So I work on my mind (with the computer). That and piano both."

The album Murdock is working on does not have a definitive timeline for completion. She said her family is anxiously anticipating its release.

"I try to play every day," she said.

Sometimes, she said, technology gets in the way.

"If I get off the computer and stop playing games and all this other stuff I'd be in good shape," she joked.

Not just a young person's addiction

According to the same Pew Research Center review, among older adults who use the internet, 71 percent go online every day or almost every day.

For both McGee and Murdock, technology and the advancements during the internet age have turned their enjoyment of connecting into a bit of an obsession.

"I have the iPad on the stand right next to my recliner and I would say, I may set it down for a few minutes, and then I pick it back up again," McGee said. "I don't dare say anything to my grandkids or anyone else anymore about being addicted."

"I don't join in that conversation," Murdock said. "I do like it. I am addicted to it."

"It's nice to know someone else is addicted to it," McGee said.

McGee talked about a cartoon she saw in the newspaper recently. It depicted a grandson saying, "My grandmother is sure old-fashioned, she only talks on her phone."

Smartphones are both beyond McGee and Murdock, who have flip phones. Murdock's has a camera that she uses only so often.

"The only reason I text is that's the only way my grandchildren will correspond with me," Murdock said. "So I learned how to text because I had to."

Reflecting on the advances technology has made in just their lifetime, momentous moments in history like the moon landing and submarine cultivation come to mind. Small boxes in the corners of rooms, cancer research and iWatches also come to mind.

Murdock is willing to learn how to use a smartphone. She would enjoy the challenge. McGee, not so much. She's holding out for one specific piece of futuristic equipment.

A time machine

"Yeah, I'll go back to age 80," she said. "I'm waiting out for the time machine."

Gone are the days of crossword puzzles, newspapers and pencils for these two savvy technology vets. They prefer the pixelated screens and the endless activities, games and news they can filter through on their devices.

"I like the adventure of learning new things and seeing the progress in technology that is still going on," Murdock said.

The adventure will continue for both. For McGee, she'll be in her recliner, or the Tennessee River, or both.

For Murdock, her album is highly anticipated. She insists the CD will feature classical music only. She does not do rock.

Just then, her flip phone goes off in her pocket. The ringtone is AC/DC's "T.N.T."

Maybe some more unexpected adventures are ahead.

Information from: The Gillette (Wyo.) News Record, http://www.gillettenewsrecord.com