02/01/2012 01:40 pm ET | Updated Apr 02, 2012

Where Have All the Old People Gone?

When I was a kid growing up outside Boston, we ached for snow days, and got a lot of them. But the snow day inevitably started with our parents waking us up early so we could head down the street (unsupervised, of course) and shovel out the little old ladies on our block. As I sit looking out the window on this snowy day, I marvel that my kids can't possibly do the same thing -- there isn't a little old lady (or man) for miles around.

Where have they gone? And what does it mean for my kids that, apart from their grandparents, they just don't know any old people?

The old people in my childhood had an enormous impact on me. My grandparents shaped me both through my interactions with them and through the stories we were told about them long after they were gone. They were my tie to my roots -- on one side the crusty, frugal New Englanders, and on the other, the English-Scottish, between-the-wars generation of CS Lewis, Ralph Vaugh Williams, Virginia Woolf and Winston Churchill. Dickens characters joined us at the dinner table because, when my grandfather was a child, his parents could afford few books, and Dickens was the author of choice.

Down the street was Mrs. Hewitt, born in 1883 in Savannah, Ga., renowned throughout the South as one of Georgia's great beauties at her coming out party. She had been raised by a nanny who had been born a slave into her family and stayed on after emancipation. Mrs. Hewitt adored her and had more photos of her in the house than she did of her parents. Mrs. Hewitt rebelled against the southern expectations for a girl of her heritage: she refused to marry after her coming out party, and instead worked with a friend to start the Girl Scouts, and then fell in love with a Northern intellectual and became a bohemian professor's wife.

I read to Mrs. Hewitt in the afternoons most summer days when I was a pre-teen because she had glaucoma and couldn't see well enough to read (or serve herself her beloved thimbleful of sherry), and my parents didn't feel like shelling out the big bucks for sleep away camp. We started with Charlotte's Web because her granddaughter was reading it and she didn't feel as current on it as she'd like. We then progressed to Pride and Prejudice and Jane Eyre. I marveled at how well she could remember every detail of the book and exactly where we'd left off. And I absorbed and appreciated it far more because of the shared experience with her.

It was probably utterly unsafe for her to remain in her rickety, drafty Victorian house. But she kept herself on a strict routine -- lunch at 1, nap in her chair at 2, tea with four Ritz crackers at 3, reading at 3:30 and sherry at 5 -- and knew the curves of the house so well that we figured she'd be OK and we'd all pitch in to care for her. She had college students live with her rent-free in exchange for keeping an eye on her and taking out the garbage. It worked fine until just before she died.

As much as I adored my grandparents, I think I learned more from Mrs. Hewitt because she was my friend. And I appreciated her all the more because she wasn't nasty old Mrs. Henderson who practically spat at us whenever we rode our bikes by her house, and she wasn't crazy Mrs. Slade who insisted on driving well into her 90s, weaving up onto the curb on one side of the street and then lurching to hit the curb on the other. I remember finding Mrs. Slade on her hands and knees on the sidewalk outside her house one particularly cold Christmas day. Her front walk was a sheet of ice and she had clearly taken a tumbler. I offered my hand and she hissed at me to mind my own business. "Whatever," I thought. "Just the way it goes with old people."

People in their 80s and 90s are just about invisible to mainstream Americans now. I don't have any friends whose neighborhood duties include keeping an eye out for an older person. We all whooped and hollered for Betty White on her 90th birthday, and rightfully so, but what about the people turning 90 who actually look and act 90? How are we keeping them top of mind? Think about all that they can teach us. Is anyone listening? Do the elderly have any idea how much they can enrich our lives?

Marian Knapp spurred my thinking about being invisible in her blog, Voice of Aging. She tells about a woman went out to lunch one day, and the server turned to her daughter and asked "What does she want to eat?" My mother, whom I write about all the time, feels uncomfortable booking tickets on the Internet, navigating an audio phone tree or reserving her seats online the night before her flight. The airlines make no effort to accommodate her purchasing, and yet she buys roughly 10 full fare tickets per year. And instead of feeling like a loyal customer, she feels like an anachronism; she keeps a low profile hoping her antiquated ways don't make her look unworthy of the airline's services.

I want my children to learn to lend a helping hand, not because their church or school or Girl Scout troop tells them they have to, but because they're invested in someone who can be enriched by their presence and vice versa. There are almost 40 million Americans over the age of 65 and there will be millions more as the boomers age. I hope we'll see more of them.