"When my husband died I knew I couldn't continue to live alone, but the idea of a nursing home seemed like the point of no return, which I knew wasn't for me," said Rose Lewis, as she settled into a comfortably overstuffed chair in the sunny apartment she now shares with tow other women.

Lewis, 70, suffers from a form of Parkinson's disease and must use a walker to get around . Instead of accepting institutional life, she chose to participate in an unusual program in Montgomery County which would enable her to continue living independently while getting help with the chores of daily life. She is one of 18 men and women, ranging from 60 to 90 years old, who are sharing apartments leased by the Jewish Council for the Aging at the El Dorado Towers in White Oak.

All were unable or unwilling to live alone, and most suffer from physical handicaps that often force older people into nursing homes.

"Here I have my own furniture, my own things around me, and friends. It's my home now," Lewis said. "Besides, she helps me as much as she can," added Lewis, as she smiled and pointed to her roommate, Rose Stone. Their third roommate is Lillian Cheses.

Stone, who also 70, came to the apartment when recuperating from an operation for a hip replacement. She too widowed, and "wanted to be with people my own age."

Lewis and Stone, known as the "two Roses" because they share the same first name, are able to manage the independence of apartment living because they have some help with the harder chores of daily life. That help is provided by the council, a non-profit, private agency. The council assigns part-time homemakers to each apartment to do all the food shopping and prepare a hot, nutritious lunch each weekday. Homemakers also prepare cold suppers if residents request them and help with the laundry.

Participants make their own beds each day, prepare breakfast together and do what light housework they can. A helper does the heavy cleaning.

"We provide the supports of everyday life so our residents can use their energy for themselves, rather than be consumed with anxiety over how they will get the laundry done, or get the groceries," said Judith Shaffert one of several social workers on the staff of the Jewish council.

"In the apartments, people can plan their own days, manage their own money, in short, live their own lives with the dignity that comes from independent living," added Shaffert.

Each apartment has three bedrooms, so that every resident has his or her own room, and a share living room, dining room, kitchen and balcony that overlooks spacious lawns and woods.

Residents pool their money monthly, each taking out $25 for personal expenses.

For Jack Gordon, 81, whose family members of his generation are all gone, the apartment relieved the anxiety that set in when he found he had diabetes and, later, cataracts. "I would rather have this any day than the alternative," said Gordon, echoing the words of other residents.

Roommate Jack Grossman, in his mid-80s, describes his friendship with Gordon as very close. "We have good talks," he says.

In fact, two years ago, a man from one apartment and a woman from another became so friendly that they married, she for the first time. They then moved into an apartment in the building where they lived until he died.

To join a group home, a person must be able to care for his or her personal needs and not require daily nursing care. Qualifying for the program is not based on finances, since costs above what participants can pay are subsidized in part by the council. Subsidies have also been made available through Maryland's Sheltered Housing Fund and in the Montgomery County Housing Authority's rent subsidy program. Any elderly person in the Washington metropolitan area is eligible for the group home program.

"We estimate that the cost per resident each month is approximately one-third the cost of nursing home care in the Washington area," said Ruth Breslow, executive director of the Jewish council.

"The cost-effectiveness of the program is self-evident, but the human dividends are immeasureable," added Breslow.

Jewish holidays are celebrated regularly by the participants, and the food is strictly Kosher. Transportation to a variety of cultural events is often provided by the council's mini-buses.

"I have seen changes in a number of people after they come into their apartments," Shaffert said. "One man who had been spending his whole time in front of the television set alone at his working daughter's house changed radically when he gained the companionship of people his own age. For him, it meant a whole new life, something to look forward to each day."

There are occasional squabbles, as in any relationships.

"After all, Gorden noted, "If you couldn't please your wife all the time, how are you going to do with a bunch of strangers?"

Stone admits that in the beginning she was frightened, "I thought we would argue and fight, since after all we didn't know each other. But we're not strangers anymore."