When Robert Martin died in February, he left his 72-year-old wife Thelma and her 63-year-old sister Erma Allen alone. Mrs. Martin was ill and bedridden. Her sister, who is slightly retarded, was unable to care for her or their home. The squalid condition of the house, coupled with harassment by neighborhood youths, made their lives difficult.

The District's Division of Protective Services intervened when it heard about the sisters. Because staff members had nowhere else to send them, they took Martin to D.C. General Hospital and Allen to the House of Ruth, a temporary shelter for homeless women.

In time, the Washington Center for Aging Services, the District's new nursing home, may provide a home for these elderly sisters and other poor people. The hope is that the new facility, in the former Lutheran Home in Northeast, will alleviate the city's estimated shortage of 1,000 nursing home spaces.

The purchase of the home came about as the result of interagency cooperation between D.C. General Hospital, the Office on Aging and the city government.

The building and adjoining 18 acres of land was a bargain at $4 million, according to D. Richard Artis, head of the Office on Aging. Although official ribbon-cutting isn't until late this month, the three-story structure has been partially renovated and open since November. It now has its first 130 residents. When the renovation has been completed, the home will accommodate 270 residents.

Patients from D.C. General had priority for the home's first available spaces. Although a few private, paying patients may be accepted in the future, Artis expects 95 percent of the resident to be covered by Medicaid. This significant, since only eight of the 15 nursing homes in the city will take Medicaid patients -- and even then the waiting lists are long.

Particularly enthusiastic about the center is Natalie D. Spingarn, a D.C. General Hospital commissioner who heads the hospital's planning committee.

Spingarn explains that when the commission began revamping the hospital administration in 1979, "the issue of what to do with long-term patients was one of the major issues we were grappling with." At the time, 179 patients required nursing home placement.

Besides taking up space the could be used for acutely ill patients, the hospital could not bill Medicaid for the care of these patients until they were released -- and many had been there as long as two years. A room in the hospital is $350 a day, compared with $90 a day in the new nursing home.

The new facility is mammoth -- the heating bill along runs approximately $14,000 a month, groans assocaite director Elliott M. Roth. Once the renovation has been completed, the building will contain about 200 private and semiprivate rooms that can be monitored from nursing stations in the hallways. There are several recreation rooms, plus a physical therapy department in the basement.

It is a bright and cheerful place; the wings are painted orange, green and blue. Staff includes six doctors who work part time, 33 nurses and about 90 aides who work rotating shifts.

"This is much nicer, much cleaner (than the hospital)," say Helen Taylor, a 60-year-old resident. Her friend Laura Jenious, who ways a woman never tells her age, agreed. "This is more like a home . . . it doesn't smell like a hospital." The two sat in a sunny social room with about 20 other residents, munching potato chips and watching Walter Wright, a very elderly disco king, outdance one staff member after another.

Most of the residents have ailments such as cataracts, diabetes, arthritis and heart disease, which require frequent medical attention. Many cannot live alone because they are disoriented or suffer from "altered mental states (no longer called senility)," explains resident services director Yvonne Gilder-Gary. Many will die here.

Spingarn says one of the most important benefits of the facility will be help for residents trying to cope with feelings of isolation.

"It's especially terrible to be old, poor and lonely," she says.

The lineliness is perhaps best illustrated by resident Olivia Johnson, who goes nowhere without a doll she calls Everlasting because everyone else in her life has died or gone away. But she manages to keep in good spirits. Why? "Because there's no one left to bother me," she says.

If plans for the center reach fruition, the facility will not necessarily be the end of the line for all residents. The plans call for construction of 480 subsidized apartment units for the elderly, plus a senior center that would house health, social service and recreational facilities available to senior citizens residing in the area.

The project would cost an estimated $20 million, and Artis hopes federal funds will be appropriated within the next two years.

The project is important because it would enable people to live relatively independently with the help they need nearby, Artis explains. "If we had more and different kinds of residential facilities, we could really help out that situation (the nursing home shortage)," she said.

Such a setup would be a boon to people such as 54-year-old Thomas Gordon, a diebetic whose leg was amputated recently. He was transferred to the center from D.C. General and is learning to walk with an artifical limb. He will soon be ready to leave the nursing home. Although eager to be independent once more, Gordon is worried. When he went into the hospital, he had to give up his job and apartment and now has no place to go.