Willie Ree Rice, 73, blind for nearly 20 years, lives on $335 a month in a mouse- and roach-infested Southwest housing project, where the toilet and stove do not work and two of the windows have been broken for almost a year.
The building's halls have loose wires hanging from empty light sockets and puddles of urine on the floors.
Northwest resident Russell Day, a recent widower of 76, is crippled, disoriented and unable to care for himself. Ignored by his neighbors, he sits alone in his apartment, staring out his half-open door at a dark and empty hallway.
Lawrence Mellott spent 30 years in the Army and his wife Ruth spent 15 years as a teacher. Both 73, they now live on $654 a month in a cluttered Northeast apartment, where Mellott says he is starving himself to keep his bedridden wife alive.
These are four of the thousands, among an estimated 99,000 elderly District residents, who live on inadequate incomes and with a range of medical, financial, legal and emotional problems, according to the public and private agencies that work with them.
When President Reagan, 72, proclaimed this Older Americans Month, he saluted the "wisdom, insight and accomplishments" of the elderly, saying they "merit an invaluable place in our culture and economy."
But as federal and District agencies sought to fulfill that proclamation with testimonials and other forms of tribute, some of the elderly in this city say they are suffering due to the inadequacy of public benefits and programs provided by both governments.
According to the most recent Census figures, nearly one in every five senior citizens in the District lives on less than $289 a month. And in the past eight months, the D.C. Office on Aging has logged 8,000 calls from city residents, most of whom are worried about losing public benefits, spokesman Sharon Henery said.
Tighter eligibility requirements, reductions in benefits and delays in cost-of-living allowances are taking an added toll on those who rely on Social Security, Medicare, Supplemental Security Income (SSI), Medicaid, food stamps, housing subsidies or energy assistance, Henery said.
Rep. Claude Pepper (D-Fla.) said the local situation would worsen under a city proposal announced this month that would increase costs to Medicaid recipients--by 700 percent for dentures, for example. Pepper, 82, is a nationally recognized advocate for the aged who lives in Northwest Washington.
Interviews with District senior citizens reveal many are unsure about what benefits are available to them because of frequent changes in regulations. Many expressed bitterness and surprise that Medicare and Social Security do not cover their medical needs.
Federal money for the elderly this year was cut $5 billion below what was needed to keep programs going at existing levels, according to a recent study by the Urban Institute, and half of that reduction was made in the Medicare, the health-care proram for persons over age 65.
Many of the elderly interviewed say they are ineligible for Medicaid despite their low incomes, and when they turn to Medicare, they find it doesn't pay all their medical bills.
Beatrice Campbell, 74, is a member of the D.C. Statewide Health Coordinating Council, which prepares the District's health plan. She has received public service awards from the city, runs a volunteer counseling program for the blind and speaks before Congress and the City Council on issues affecting the elderly.
"I have a multiplicity of handicaps," Campbell said, mentioning that her disabilities include diabetes, a heart ailment, arthritis and spinal curvature. She also has lost an eye.
She said she is allergic to some drugs, "which means most of the pain killers I can't use, so I rely on Tylenol. But I use an awful lot of it and I have to pay for it out of my own pocket. . . . I have to pay for the repairs to my crutches and all that stuff. . . . This year, it was way over a thousand dollars."
SSI, was created as a supplementary benefit for the aged or disabled. An estimated 12,000 city residents receive SSI payments of up to $284.30 a month, and for many it is the major source of income.
Alice Sparkman's six-month effort to get SSI has been unsuccessful, although she lives on only $200 a month. She has a long history of emotional problems, is arthritic, nervous and prone to sudden bursts of tears, according to health professionals who know her case.
Caseworkers say Sparkman, 62, should qualify because of her age and disability but getting SSI has become a grueling, drawn-out ordeal due to workers' heavy caseload and a finding several years ago that she was able-bodied.
"I had two complete nervous breakdowns in the '40s, and I can't cope with certain things," Sparkman said. "I avoid crowds and confrontations in certain areas where I have trouble expressing myself.
"I needn't tell you that applying for SSI or being on SSI or disability in any sense like that is a very trying thing. It's rather a bad thing to be put through."
If she is not approved for SSI, Sparkman said, "I'll just have to try to do something. I know I'm not going to beg, I'm not going to lie and I'm not going to cheat and steal, or anything like that."
In 1976, the D.C. Office on Aging reported one-third of the District's elderly live alone and many are unaware of benefits and resources available to them. Of the estimated 12,000 city residents eligible for food stamps, 4,500 get them, said Dexter Stannard, chief of the food stamp branch in the Department of Human Services.
District outreach programs to inform the poor about food stamp eligibility ended when federal funds for the program were discontinued in October 1981.
Although some of the homebound and isolated elderly seem well-adjusted, most are depressed and have a broad range of problems, caseworkers say.
Russell Day, crippled and disoriented, was unable to care for himself after his wife died several months ago. He came to the attention of a city social worker, who now pays his bills and handles his medical needs while a home-health aide cooks and cleans for him. Soon, he will be placed in a nursing home, his social worker said.
"I sat here and watched my wife die," Day said. "She used to put a mirror on the table and sit me there to shave. I miss that like the devil.
"I worked until I was 68, painting and cleaning. I used to dance: fox trot, waltz--won some prizes. Since I become crippled I ain't done nothing. I forget so much. Things happen to me and I come back and forget everything.
"I put myself on fire. I went to sleep with a cigarette in my hand. I had to fight to pull this thing shirt off. But I got it off and saved the rest of it.
"They mention going to a nursing home sometimes and I worry about it when they do because I don't want to go. As long as I can, I want to live like this."
One of the greatest fears for many older persons is being forced into a nursing home, said Janet Colwell, director of volunteer services for the Washington Center for Aging Services. "It means giving up a lot," she said. "They've long since lost their jobs, and then they lose their family, lose their identity; they become the lady in room 1175.
"It's difficult when you're incontinent and having your diapers changed after you've raised five kids, and now someone's standing over you calling you 'Sweetie.' "
Bernice Collins, 86, recently moved to a nursing home after injuring her hip, and her adjustment has been difficult. Until her accident in January, she always had prepared meals for herself and her boyfriend--the same one she's had since moving to the area in 1918 from her native Pennsylvania.
"I was in the bathroom that night and I don't know what made me fall," Collins said. "It wasn't dark and the floor wasn't slippery. I lay there from half-past two until eight o'clock in the morning. I couldn't move, couldn't get up. I was cold all night.
"This has been kind of a shock for me. Last night, they put me on a bedpan after dinner at about 6:30, and do you know what time they came to take it away? 9:30. They don't come when I ring the bell, they come when they're good and ready."
One group of elderly patients is getting away from nursing homes and hospitals: the terminally ill. Hospice care is becoming more common in the District, as Medicare and private insurance companies test the potential for cost savings.
Hospices are less expensive because they eliminate curative treatment and strive to make patients comfortable during their final days, said one hospice administrator.
Alma Swift, 74, was diagnosed in 1978 as having stomach cancer. After four years and two operations, she was close to death last summer, her caseworker said. In extreme pain and being fed through a stomach pump, she left the hospital to spend her final days with her husband of 54 years in their Northwest apartment.
She was expected to live no more than a few months, but after eight months of home care, she is off the pump and has regained her weight. She said she has no pain other than an occasional headache, can sit on her front porch and, with help, take short walks.
Swift and her husband Charles, who is 73 and disabled, live on less than $500 a month in Social Security benefits, food stamps and SSI. The hospice care is paid in part by Medicare, and four unpaid nurses help out.
"They wanted to send me to a rest home because my husband was the only person here," Swift said. "But my husband said no. I like it much more being at home than I would in a nursing home because my husband sees after me, he does all the cooking and whatever I want to eat, he cooks. He sees about me in every way."
Sgt. Lawrence Mellott, who served in the Army from 1928 to 1958, cares for his wife Ruth, who has been bedridden since 1975.
Languishing in a wheelchair during a recent visit from her social worker, motionless and eyes closed, her sweater torn, Ruth Mellott complained she doesn't get enough to eat. Her husband said he can afford only bare essentials.
"I starve myself to feed her," he said. "I don't have the money. I still owe Safeway because the checks bounce. I have to cook, clean and wash for her, bathe her. I get so tired. I have to stay up 24 hours a day to wait on her. I need help some way, I mean it.
"She has Medicare, yes, but Medicare don't pay for it. Walter Reed is the only hospitalization she has. And I have to pay for her meals in Walter Reed. They don't have her medicine so I have to pay for that.
"I'm sticking in there, just like on the battle front. I want my Ruth. We're gonna go down the drain and we don't have long to go. We're at the bottom of the barrel." CAPTION: Picture 1, Alma Swift, 74, is being cared for at her Northwest home by her husband of 54 years Charles, 73. By DUDLEY M. BROOKS -- The Washington Post; Picture 2, Lawrence Mellott and his bedridden wife Ruth live on $654 a month. By VANESSA BARNES HILLIAN -- the Washington Post; Picture 3, Unable to get added benefits, Alice Sparkman lives on $200 a month. By VANESSA BARNES HILLIAN -- The Washington Post