Real People Empty Nesting

Tobey Dichter:
Founder of Generations on Line

By Robin Bonner

When Tobey Dichter viewed a demo of the Internet at her daughter’s college in 1996, the first thing she thought was, “Wow, older people could really use this tool!” It was just like Tobey to be thinking of the aged. She was very close to her own mother, then 84. “I have always loved old people” Tobey will tell you. One night in 1996 at a family vacation in Bermuda, a staff member treated her frail-looking mother condescendingly (although Mum was, in fact, very much “on the ball”), and that night Tobey dreamt of changing the world.

In the past, Tobey realized, elders were society’s dispensers of knowledge and were widely respected. Today, however, the young hold the keys to the vehicles of communication—computers and the Internet—things older people aren’t familiar with or comfortable using. When Tobey would bring up learning to use a computer or getting on the Internet with seniors she knew, they’d say, “Oh, no, not me—I’m not able to do that. I’m too dumb! I’m too old!” In a society that was relying more and more on technology, Tobey knew that the elderly who did not or could not adapt would soon be left behind.

Fast-forward a couple of years. Toby couldn’t stop thinking about the issues of the elderly: how they’re treated, how they feel about it, and how technology and the Internet might be able to help, if only the obstacles could be overcome. Her children were off in college, and her mother had recently passed away. As empty nesters, she and husband Mark, a lawyer, were getting home from work later and later, and possibly missing the opportunity to follow a passion. So, she left her position as Vice President of Corporate Communications and Public Affairs at SmithKline Beecham (now Glaxo SmithKline) to establish and build Generations on Line, a nonprofit designed to help older people—especially those without the means to purchase computers or get support—learn how to use the Internet to connect with friends and relatives, access important information, and build their knowledge, as well as their confidence.

Tobey was also always close to her two children, both girls. As she began a second career at midlife as a nonprofit entrepreneur, she says, “They were more proud of me at that point than they ever were all those years I was working my way up the corporate ladder in the pharmaceutical industry.” And with both daughters working in some area of nonprofits, media, or technology, Tobey had their support literally and figuratively. “They mentored me, actually—really helping me to launch a new business.” So did her husband Mark, who also has an engineering degree and “has always been fascinated by computers. His support and patience were infinite and still are to this day,” she says.

Like many of us, Tobey Dichter muscled her way through her empty-nesting years, squeezed by the dual obligations of learning to let go as a mother and learning to help as a daughter. Yet she was able to create something monumental from the experience: With her daughters’ help and her mother in mind, she launched Generations on Line, which to date has helped more than 70,000 people over 65 get online in more than 1800 facilities throughout the United States and Canada. The nonprofit has won major awards from the American Society on Aging and other organizations. And, Tobey has done Empty Nest readers a great honor by agreeing to share her story . . .

EN: Tobey, what aspects of your life laid the foundation for your penchant for supporting older people? Were you close to your grandparents? What role did they have in your family? What did you learn from your parents, and how did you teach this love for elders to your own children?

TD: None of my own grandparents were able to play a role in my life, but I have always considered my mother to be my best friend, and her brother, my uncle, to be my hero. They each loved life to the fullest and took advantage of every opportunity for art and culture, friends and laughter. One needn’t try to teach love—just model it. Our daughters have a special compassion for older people—perhaps because they value wisdom and were lucky to have wonderful grandparents on both sides.

EN: Describe the events that pushed you to leave your career with SmithKline and begin your new life as an entrepreneur. What preparations did you engage in to lay the groundwork for starting a multifaceted, gerontology-based nonprofit? Did you take classes, or just observe and take note? How did you come up with backers for your venture?

TD: I wanted to change the face of aging—and the more I learned, the more I realized that how we view ourselves is in large measure the key to how others will view us. So it had to start with a plan to overcome the embarrassments of aging. And suddenly, this incredible tool with its potential for overcoming many of the limitations of aging appeared. Informal and formal focus groups revealed an enormous need, and I spent a year studying the barriers to Internet use by seniors.

EN: What were some of the difficulties you encountered in attempting to launch the business? What was your biggest challenge? Were there times you thought you wouldn’t succeed? How did you choose those who would work with you—what traits and experience were you looking for?

TD: Actually, the beginning was easier than the middle. When it was all new, even the smallest success was victory. I remember celebrating with my wonderful colleagues because someone actually returned a phone call. Three years later, when the stakes and bars were higher, it was more difficult, but we were still very lucky, and our corporate backgrounds served us well. We built a small team—all brighter than I am—and who have all the strengths I lack. It has served us well.

EN: How does the Generations on Line program work? What are the nonprofit’s major accomplishments? Has the business evolved as you imagined it would? How have you had to “roll with the punches” through the years? Where do you picture yourself and the business in 5 years? In 10 years?

TD: The program seeks to simplify the Internet for people over age 65—people for whom computers and interactive communication is foreign. We created software that has instructions on every screen in large type and plain English or Spanish. We sell a subscription to places where elders live or congregate, such as nursing homes, senior centers, and public libraries. They must make it free to seniors. It has been more demanding and more fun than I ever imagined. No idea what will be in 5 to 10 years. This was an idea that was designed to be completed in 5 years—and it’s been 12! So I’m not good at forecasting social trends.

EN: How are your daughters involved with the business? What do you do together for fun? Do you have grandchildren? How old are they, and how do you like to spend your time together? What does your “usual” day look like, and how do you make time both for family and for the business?

TD: I love the variety and balance of my life. I have come to think the secret of success is to be very clear in one’s priorities. Family first; passions next; self last, but who needs a pedicure anyway? We’re blessed with a three-year-old granddaughter and an 8-month-old grandson delivered by two adored daughters of ours. The “nest” is never empty. My usual day begins with a half hour of yoga or resistance training, or an early morning library meeting, work ‘til 7, and evening out with Mark at theater, orchestra, library lecture, or dinner here or out with friends. Mark and I both love to cook, but since our return from two years living in London we find ourselves compelled to take in everything available here in the city, as we did there.

EN: What advice do you have for empty nesters—how can we learn to put ourselves aside and make a difference to others? And, on the other hand, how can we best balance the challenges of supporting our aging parents while launching our children—how do we deal with “the squeeze”?

TD: My only advice is to commit to doing more than you think you can possibly handle, and then you’ll find a way.

Robin Bonner is editor of Empty Nest. For more about Robin, see About Us.

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