Since her legs and eyesight began failing a few years ago, Ellie Johnson, 85, has spent most of her days "just sitting." After the death of her husband in 1975, she stopped leaving her Upper Northwest apartment except for visits to the doctor.

"It's too much of an effort to get dressed," Johnson said last week. "I just like to stay right at home."

Although Johnson (not her real name) is financially self-sufficient, she worries that continued inflation will change that. But her chief fear -- up until about a year ago -- was being alone.

"I could have fallen and lain on the floor for days before anyone found me," she said.

No longer. Not since visiting friends told her about Iona House, a church sponsored agency to assist the elderly in the Tenley Circle area of Northwest Washington.

"They're wonderful people," said Johnson. "They call me every morning to see if I'm up on my feet. A lovely woman visits me once or twice a month, and they send somebody to do my grocery shopping.

"I'm not alone anymore, and I feel so much safer and happier!"

Johnson is one of nearly 400 elderly persons in the neighborhoods around the circle who receive some type of aid from Iona House. More than 60 volunteers at the house help the elderly perform such tasks as writing letters, paying bills, walking, and even reading newspapers and books to persons with poor eyesight.

They also offer recreation programs for senior citizens three afternoons a week at the house at 4200 Butterworth Place NW, and publish a senior citizen directory that lists sale items offered by local businesses.

In addition, they run a support program for women whose husbands have recently died, offering them the friendly ear of a widow trained in counseling to provide comfort after friends, relatives and clergy have gone. According to house codirector Pearlby LaBier, approximately 500 women are widowed annually in the Iona House area.

Iona House was formed four years ago by members of St. Columba's Episcopal Church at 4201 Albemarle St. NW who wanted to begin a community outreach program in honor of the church's 100th anniversary. They started an information and referral center for the elderly in the former church rectory and within a short time were handling about 60 calls a month.

Today they receive funding from eight area churches and a handful of private sponsors, and take 300 calls from elderly people in need of help.

According to LaBier, the Tenley Circle area and its adjoining neighborhoods had the highest concentrattion of residents over the age of 60 in the city -- about 26,000. But, she said, "It's presumed this is an affluent area. Therefore, we don't get much government funding."

LaBier added that because many of the older residents receive Social Security and other retirement benefits in excess of federal minimums, they are not eligible for food stamps and Medicaid. "They had dreams of retiring with a certain amount of security and instead many are faced with serious financial problems," LeBier said.

Lately, Iona House has been getting an increasing number of phone calls for housing assistance, LaBier said. Many elderly people are being forced out of their apartments in the area as buildings are converted to condominiums. o

"They call us for help," LaBier said, "but there's really nothing we can do except refer them to housing agencies in the Maryland or Virginia suburbs."

In order to make Iona House a more comprehensive agency, volunteers are currently surveying residents of the six-block area surrounding the facility. LaBier hopes the survey will result in creation of another program, which she calls "Neighbor to Neighbor."

The program would combine the efforts of entire neighborhoods in a "team approach" for meeting the needs of the elderly.

"If a teen-ager is going to the post office," LaBier said, "maybe he could stop in to see if his elderly neighbor needs something mailed. Or, if an elderly person gets out of the hospital and is supposed to go out walking every day, maybe a neighbor could take him around the block."

"I think younger people are looking for community spirit activities like this," said LaBier. "They just don't know where to find them."

If people surveyed show interest in the "Neighbor to Neighbor" program, it could be working in a couple of months in the Tenley Circle area, LaBier said.