A new day care program for the elderly beginning next month in Alexandria will offer recreational and learning activities as well as health services, with the aim of keeping senior citizens independent.

"Most of the clients we serve would otherwise be in a nursing home or have to have a paid nursing aide come into the home," said Sue Lewis, director of the Alexandria Adult Day Health Care Center.

"Our goal is to try to keep people in their homes, in the community, as independent as possible for as long as possible," Lewis said.

Lewis noted that the program, which includes lunch for everyone and breakfast for those who sign up for it, has the added benefit of providing relief for the family or person who is the regular caretaker for a frail, elderly person.

The day care program will be held in the Lee Center on Jefferson Street in southern Alexandria, which also is the site of recreation programs for other age groups.

The senior citizens program will operate weekdays from 7:30 a.m. until 5:30 p.m. beginning Aug. 4, but applications will be accepted after Monday, Lewis said. Anyone aged 55 and over is eligible to attend, and fees will be set on a sliding scale according to income, with some participants allowed to come free and others charged as much as $24 per day.

A total of $20,000 in federal funds is available to pay for low-income senior citizens, Lewis said. Reimbursement through Medicaid may also be possible during the coming year.

The center is licensed for 20 clients per day, and will draw on a population that includes 9,500 persons over the age of 65 within Alexandria city limits, Lewis said.

A brochure for the program promises "new friends, personal growth, a safe environment, attention to good health and nutrition, and fun." The day care center's staff will include a registered nurse to monitor participants' health, recreation workers trained to exercise the minds and bodies of older people, and many volunteers. Group discussions, gardening, field trips, musical entertainment and carefully structured calisthenics classes are among the activities planned, Lewis said.

The Alexandria endeavor follows a nationwide move by communities to give senior citizens an alternative to expensive, long-term institutional care.

"The City Council members didn't like the idea that people who had lived here all their lives had to go elsewhere to get care," said Lewis, noting that the only comparable service in Alexandria is private, and for paying customers only.

The City of Alexandria spent $58,000 during the last budget year on renovations and staff for the new program, and has allocated $75,000 for the program this year.