Nutrition for the elderly formed the focus of a meeting Saturday of the Montgomery County chapter of the Gray Panthers, a nationwide organization of senior citizens and others interested in the problems of the elderly.

Joncier Greene, an official of the Farmers Home Administration who works with the rural elderly, told the group of about 35 at the Long Branch Library in Silver Spring that normal physical deterioration contributes to malnutrition in later life.

As a person ages, Greene said, lean body mass naturally decreses.If physical activity also declines, as it often does when a person retires, fewer calories are needed and fatty tissue might increase. Taste buds become less sensitive, she said, so that older people may be less interested in food. Sometimes ill-fitting dentures or the loss of teeth, require a switch of softer foods, although the need for food fiber increases with age.

Greene said personal problems and stress also may cause the appetite for food to decline. When elders lose their spouses, when their grown children live far away or when they feel unsafe in their neighborhoods eating habits can be affected and this can contribute to poor nutrition.

The use of alcohol increases in the elderly, Greene said, as an antidote to stress. Additional free time is another factor that can lead to poor eating habits, and the use of drugs, both prescription and over-the-counter, can depress the appetite.

Another speaker, Dan Hickman of the National Association of Area Agencies on Aging, related a statistical outline of elderly people in the United States. He said there are 25 million persons 65 or older, and they comprise 11 percent of the population. By the year 2000, he said, there will be a 62 percent increase in the number of persons over 75, because of increased life expectancy. The majority of the elderly, he added, are women.

Elderly persons spend 22 percent of their incomes on food, Hickman said, compared with 17 percent among those under 65, but less of the food budget is spent on dining out, he said.

"You can talk about nutrition all you want, but if there is no money, there is no nutrition," said Abe Bloome of Silver Spring, one of the meeting's organizers.

"You're a lobbying group," replied Greene. "We're just giving you information you can use in your efforts to get the programs changed and improved."

After the presentations, members of the group discussed federally sponsored programs for the elderly. Several complained that some of the programs are poorly run, and that those providing meals in churches and other neighborhood locations are open to both the needy elderly and to those who can afford to pay.

Others noted that services sometimes are uneven. "I play clarinet and saxophone," said one man, who explained he is a member of a group that entertains at places where such meals are served. "I can tell you that the meals are poorer in Oxon Hill and better in Wheaton."

"Do you feel that (the federal food programs) are effective?" Greene asked the group. Most responded affirmatively. "Do you want them to continue?" she asked. The group again answered yes."Then work to keep them and improve them," Greene concluded.

Greene said the Older Americans Act, which encompasses many programs for the elderly, will expire this year unless Congress extends it. "We have to unify and back our programs," Hickman said.

"The slogan ought to be, 'Protest if you want to live,'" said Alfred Henley, a retired physician who monitors utility concerns for the group.