On a bitter cold afternoon this week, Deborah Warren, Alexandria's coordinator of elderly services, visited Arch House, a city-sponsored home for the elderly, to talk to Clara Bass, 79, and Ethel Wolf, 76. Bass talked of her frustrations with memory loss, and Wolf said there weren't enough men her age to date.

Suddenly the three women laughed like preteen girls. Warren, a psychiatric social worker, had cheered the women up on a dreary winter day at the same time she checked to see that they were receiving proper services.

Warren predicts that nearly 750 elderly people in Alexandria will have similar visits this year thanks to a new geriatric team that will work specifically with mental problems in older people by making home visits. Last year, before the team was established, only 169 people received visits. There are similar teams in other Northern Virginia jurisdictions.

In October Warren completed hiring the team she supervises: Dr. Carlos Berry, a psychiatrist; Ginny Rossheim, a gerontological nurse, and Terri Cunningham, a geriatric counselor.. Last spring the City Council unanimously approved about $50,000 for the program.

Each member of the team makes a separate visit to an elderly person in the person's home. The visits are in response to those who have asked for help or who have been referred to the team by someone else.

After making home visits each week, the team meets to evaluate the cases. People suffering from mental illness or suicidal tendencies are high priorities. Rossheim is often responsible for finding out whether the person's depression is being caused by the side effects of drugs.

The team often consults with the person's physician and family members. Often a trained volunteer is assigned to the person.

"I remember this one woman, who was only 71, that was terribly depressed and someone said to me, 'You won't be able to help her; she's hopeless,' " Warren said. When Warren visited, the woman's house was dark and dirty; she was unkempt and extremely depressed.

"Part of her depression was because her son never wrote or visited her," Warren said. But she also suffered from severe anemia and hormonal imbalances that contributed to the depression. After several months of hospitalization and counseling, Warren was pleasantly surprised when she again ran into the woman.

"She had her hair permed, she had on makeup, she had put on weight and she had a boyfriend. She was very happy," Warren said. "Her son still never wrote or visited, but we assigned a volunteer who visited her each week and really became like a surrogate daughter."

"Older people have a real need to go over their life . . . to grieve about those things that they didn't do, to grieve about the people and things like physical ability they've lost, and to feel good about the accomplishments in their lives," Warren said.

Last year in a discussion group that Warren holds at the city's four senior centers, Warren asked what the participants would like people to say about them when they died. One man, 69, said, "I'd like people to give me my flowers now." So everyone in the group told him what they liked about him. Two weeks later he died.

The team members are particularly concerned about suicide among the elderly. Warren said about 15 to 25 percent of people over age 60 suffer from significant mental disorders, but mostly depression.

"Depression is 80 percent treatable, but if it's not treated it's 15 percent fatal because people commit suicide," Warren said.

Medical doctors are not adequately trained in gerontological psychiatry to spot severe depression in older people they treat, according to Warren. She cites research that estimates 76 percent of older men who commit suicide have seen a physician within a month before dying, and 33 percent have seen a doctor within a week of dying. "Doctors often see older people who are depressed and assume it's natural. It's not . . . it's also not natural for people with physical problems like Alzheimer's disease {which causes mental deterioration} to be depressed," Warren said.

Depression in the elderly is an evil cycle, Warren said, because when older people get depressed they often get confused. She added that "with therapy and counseling most older people can live very happy lives."