Two Engineers, 60 Years Apart, Explore Aging Together

Pierre Thollot (88) and Grace Hunt (28) sitting together
Photo: Kyle Hunt

By: Kathy Pretz

THE INSTITUTE The friendship between 88-year-old Pierre Thollot and 28-year-old Grace Hunt (née Watt) [pictured above] might seem like an odd one at first. After all, most twentysomethings probably couldn’t be bothered to hang out with a senior citizen who is not their grandparent. But in 2019, Thollot, a retired power electronics engineer, and Hunt, then a graduate student in power electronics engineering at Virginia Tech, formed a bond after they struck up a conversation during an event held at the university. They started off talking about power engineering, then moved on to the process of aging. She was looking ahead; he was living it.

The IEEE Fellow and the IEEE student member—who have maintained their friendship, corresponding regularly—were inspired to write a book together. The Golden Journey: Two Perspectives on Navigating Later Life explores their friendship. It includes interviews with Thollot’s friends about their attitudes on aging, and it provides tips on how to prepare for life after retirement.

“Getting old is something you have to plan for, because while you're working, you’re not really focusing on getting closer to retirement,” Thollot says. “And then, bingo, it’s a whole new life.”

For example, he says, consider yourself a pilot and you’re the only passenger on the flight. “It’s your responsibility to do a good job of piloting, navigating and getting yourself there safely,” he says.

Hunt covers the wisdom she has gained from her elderly friends and relatives. She says that what sets The Golden Journey apart from other books on aging is that it’s from the viewpoint of both an older person and a younger one.

“We’re all aging adults,” she says. She and Thollot “found we were both wrestling with these hard questions about aging, life, and friendships. I think younger people could experience a much richer and more grounded life by having relationships with older individuals.”

Included in the book is a forward written by Alan Castel, a psychology professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, who is the author of Better With Age: The Psychology of Successful Aging.

“Usually younger people, such as college students, have a neutral or even negative, stereotypical idea of what old age is all about,” Castel wrote. “By experience and interaction, we learn how older adults provide the evidence of what it means to age well. Grace and Pierre show that successful aging is a journey that is constantly being navigated.”

Thollot says that by putting their words on paper, they hoped to share their experiences and research with doctors, engineers, and others.

A CHANCE MEETING

The day Thollot and Hunt met, he was at Virginia Tech to give a speech at a retirement dinner for a former colleague who worked at the school’s Center for Power Electronics Systems. The center’s students set up a poster session for the banquet’s attendees. Hunt’s poster, describing her research on the characterization of vertical, gallium nitride transistors, caught Thollot’s attention.

“Initially we spoke the same technology language—about power and power electronics,” Hunt says. Their conversation took a turn, though, when she asked Thollot how old he was. The two then explored the subject of aging.

10 Tips for Successful Aging

  • Plan ahead for your golden years.
  • Stay physically active.
  • Stay mentally healthy.
  • Keep connected to family and friends.
  • Create a daily or weekly schedule.
  • Stay creative by taking on challenging projects.
  • Be of assistance to others.
  • Have a sense of purpose and a positive attitude.
  • Spend money on memorable experiences, not on stuff.
  • Do the best you can with what you have in hand.
     

In the book, she writes, “After a day of conversation about engineering, I was excited that he seemed willing to answer my personal questions about aging and the rich, lasting stuff. To me, he seemed like the wisest in the room and the one most likely to leave me with the eternal nuggets of information that only those in their 80s have to give.”

Thollot’s career focused on power engineering. He spent 35 years in the field. In 1962 he joined NASA’s Lewis Research Center, in Cleveland, where he was chief of the agency’s power electronics branch within the spacecraft technology division. He later served as deputy project manager for the center’s electric and hybrid vehicle project office. He left the center in 1980 to join Sundstrand, in Rockford, Ill. Sundstrand provided electrical power equipment for aircraft and space vehicles. Prior to retiring in 1996, Thollot was director of the electrical research division.

Thollot was elevated to IEEE Fellow in 1994 for his “contributions to the promulgation, growth, and application of power electronics technology.” He was president of the IEEE Power Electronics Society from 1989 to 1990, and a member of the IEEE Board of Directors in 1995 and 1996.

BONDING WITH SENIORS

In the book, Hunt describes how she became interested in the lives of senior citizens after living with her best friend’s grandmother Tante Rose one summer while doing an internship at a nonprofit in Lancaster, Pa. Rose included Hunt in her inner circle of friends. Hunt played board games with them and listened to their trials and tribulations. In the book, she shares what she learned from observing them.

“The elderly, particularly 80-year-olds, intrigue me because they are different,” she wrote. “The more time I spend with them, the more I find they are entirely familiar. They seem to have the same problems and conversations I had with my friends in their teens or 20s. Perhaps what felt most comforting was the fact that they didn’t have it all figured out.”

Hunt says her parents were both mathematically and scientifically minded. Her mother worked at the St. Louis Science Center. Her father, a computer developer, owns his ActionFlow, which provides business software for countertop fabricators. Hunt joined the company as a software developer after she graduated with a master’s degree in power electronics in 2019 from Virginia Tech.

Both her grandfathers are still alive and, in the book, she shares details about her relationships with them.

SHARING THE JOURNEY WITH OTHERS

Hunt says the book seems to resonate with people whose parents or grandparents are 70 or older.

“I think this book will allow younger individuals to see older individuals in a way they haven’t before,” she says. “A big chunk of our professional and personal lives is still ahead of us, and it’s really easy to get caught up in attaining this or that, or setting goals. But when you meet older individuals and they’ve had successful careers, suffered loss, and grieved, it really shifts your perspective about what’s important.”

Thollot adds that younger people might not realize it, but they can add to the happiness of senior citizens.

“We need interaction with others our own age but also the support and interest of the younger folks around us,” he says. “The younger folks can play a fantastic part. I know this because my grandchildren are part of my life, and without them, I would be a hermit.”

This article originally appeared in IEEE Spectrum on 10 May 2021.