The old woman, sitting beneath a stream of morning sunlight, gently picked up the black-and-gold plastic frame and admired her favorite photograph, a faded portrait of a brawny young man dressed in the fashions of the early years of this century.

"I was so in love with my husband," said Mary Ford Jacobs, 95, from the easy chair in her Northwest Washington apartment. "He was a good man. His death hurt me so bad. I didn't want no other man after James died."

Jacobs' husband, a cotton and rice farmer in her native South Carolina, died in 1926. Since then, she has been a widow.

Mary Ford Jacobs is one of 8 million older women alone -- women who are widowed, separated, divorced or never married. They make up the largest portion of America's 14.3 million older women -- those 65 and over -- who in turn constitute the fastest-growing segment of the U.S. population. By contrast, there are only 9.8 million older men, about 2 million of whom are unmarried. Those national statistics are mirrored in the Washington area, with its nearly 129,000 older women and about 77,000 older men.

Given such limited opportunity and social norms that discourage older women from marrying younger men, most older widows do not remarry, and spend an average of 18 1/2 years alone.

They and the other women alone pose a major challenge to society for the rest of this century and well into the next, according to experts in the field of aging.

"The very fact that there are so many older women now means we should be paying more attention to their health, housing, economic and social needs," said Dr. Robert Butler, director of the National Institute on Aging. "These older women are the poorest of the poor in our society. We must realize that they already are what the younger women of today will be in the future."

As recently as 50 years ago there was roughly an equal number of older men and women. But since then America has aged -- number of elderly has quadrupled while the U.S. population has roughly doubled -- and the gap has steadily widened.

Every day approximately 5,000 Americans turn 65 and 3,400 people 65 and older die, for a net increase of 1,600 a day, or about 584,000 a year.And two out of every three are women, according to a study, "Every Ninth American," prepared for the U.S. Senate's special committee on aging.

"Our rapidly expanding population of older women is due primarily to medical adances that have reduced the number of women who die during childbirth," Butler said. "We believe men have been dying sooner than women because men have traditionally had a harder life style, have been harder drinkers, have worked on more dangerous jobs and played hazardous sports and have been killed in war.

"That explains about 60 percent of the reasons why women are living longer than men," Butler added. "The other 40 percent is beyond our knowledge at this time."

While advances in medicine and public health have helped to increase Americans' average life span by 26 years since 1900, the marvel of longevity has brought a darker side.

Older women -- especially those who live alone -- are likely to be poor. For about 60 percent of all unmarried older women, their sole source of income is Social Security, which averages under $300 a month.

Mary Ford Jacobs, who receives a monthly Social Security check of $200, has learned to make do. She spends $72 a month to rent a one-bedroom apartment in a new building for the elderly owned by the National Center on Black Aged.

Jacobs said she divides the remaining $128 between food and clothing. Her restricted budget is stretched further by Medicare benefits and friends and relatives who transport her to and from church and shopping and pay for the dinner meal prepared for her each day in the apartment building dinning room.

Occasionally she still works as a cleaning woman for a Montgomery County family that has employed her for 30 years, now picking up about $13 a day.

For years, Jacobs had to be out of bed and en route to that job by 5 a.m. She said she still wakes up at 5, but now has the luxury of staying in bed until 6, when she prepares breakfast -- one egg, one slice of toast and a single cup of coffee.

Then, Jacobs said, she does her housework. She dusts the television set and telephone in her bedroom. Then she dusts the smaller television set and an extension phone in the living room. Finally she straightens photographs of family and friends scattered about the room.

"The balance of the day, I talk with a few neighbors," said Jacobs, whose only child died 50 years ago. "I sit and pray. I sing and I just think."

"I get lonely sometimes," she said, placing a coffee pot on the stove and sitting down at her dining room table with its single chair. "I think about my husband and how good he was to me. And I think about my father. . . . He would say to me, "Treat everbody right. You never know who you'll have to call on for a piece of bread before you die."

About 5 percent of the elderly live in health-care institutions. The vast bulk of them, about 1 million, are in more than 24,000 nursing homes around the country. In the nursing home population, 74 percent are women and 69 percent of those are widows. Of every 100 residents in nursing home, about 40 were forced by debilitating illnesses to leave their own homes in search of around-the-clock care.

Those statistics, too, are mirrored in the Washington area, where there are 8,200 elderly in nursing homes, 6,150 of them women.

Before she stumbled on a curb and severely injured her back nearly three years ago, Ruth Tilley, 86, lived with her daughter and son-in-law in their Silver Spring home. But after the accident, her doctor suggested she move to a nursing home, where she would be sure to get the long-term medical care she would need for the rest of her life.

Tilley, the mother of another daughter and two sons, shares the tidy, modestly furninshed room at the Manor Care nursing home in Hyattsville with an 88-year-old roommate.

"I could just sit here for hours watching how the seasons change or watching a beautiful sunrise," said Tilley, relaxing in a rocking chair located beside her bed and in front of a large picture window. "This time of year is the prettiest. It's like watching a miracle when the trees start turning green."

Since two years ago when she checked into the nursing home -- where there are 116 single older women and only 30 single men -- Tilley has enjoyed a rapid rise among her peers to be chairman of the home's resident council and president of the institution's welcoming commitee.

"I'm always trying to get the older people here to get up out of their rocking chairs and get involved," said Tilley, a former registered nurse. "Some people are really depressed. They were just dropped off here at the home by a friend or relative who never comes back to visit. These people just sit and feel sorry for themselves because they feel they've been forgotten."

Every day, Tilly has an early breakfast. Then, according to doctor's orders, she takes her aluminum frame walker and slowly negotiates the full length of the corridor in the home's west wing. Later, in her role as chairman of the resident council, she listens to complaints about services. By late afternoon, she settles down with a knitting project or with an oil painting done by the numbers.

"To enjoy life as an older person, you've got to have a good strong mental attitude," said Tilley, whose husband, a dentist, died in 1974. "I feel really lonely sometimes. But when you lose a spouse, a part of you is gone and you never really get over it. But you can't just sit and worry. You have to realize there's nothing you can do about it."

As Tilley walked a visitor to the door of her room, she paused briefly to give details on a display of family photographs. "This is what we call the 'Memorial Tree.' This is where I'll be buried," she said, pointing to a picture of a huge, driftwood stump, decorated with colorful potted plants.

"Several members of our family are buried here, including my husband. My husband's grave was dug deep enough so that there would be room for me over the top of him when it's my time to go."

Although they are often alone, older women have not been completely deserted. Like the rest of the elderly population, they can draw on friends, family and an array of public and private programs that range from low-income, specially designed housing, to hot meal and at-home health care programs, to special transportation and escort services that help them enjoy shopping and recreation activities.

Not the least of these special programs are Medicare and Medicaid, which together paid roughly 56 percent of the $63.6 billion spent on health care for the elderly last year. An additional 6 to 7 percent came from other governmental programs and the rest from private sources. Total national health care expenditures last year were $216.3 billion.

Experts predict that, with the rapid aging of the population, health care for the elderly will take an increasing share of the nation's rapidly rising health bill.

Emina Bretsch, who will say only that she is over 65, is the rare instance of financial independence among older women.

When her husband died last October, Bretsch, who is confined to bed in her Georgetown home with arthritis, was able to maintain the staff of maids and nurses who attend her town house, monitor her health, and help her to continue such favorite activities as collecting and showing expensive dogs.

Under similar circumstances, most older women would have to turn to government aid, charity and other forms of help. But Bretsch, the well-off Egyptian Princess Emina Toussoun who came to the United States 34 years ago to marry an American, said that her money has helped her to keep her independence and dignity.

In the earlier years of her marriage, Bretsch said, she and her husband enjoyed status as frequent guests on the Georgetown party circuit.

"But when you grow old, don't have as much money and you can't produce an ambassador on demand," she said, "they drop you right away."

With a specially equipped telephone at her elbow and the remote control for her television within easy reach, Bretsch said she spends her day reading, watching the soap operas and directing the work of her housekeepers by telephone.

But at night, after her employes have left for the day, the telephone has grown silent and the television screen is black, Bretsch, who had no children, relies on a friend or nurse who stays over until the morning comes.

There are several things older couples can do to help prepare the wife for her probable widowhood, said Butler of the institute for aging.

"Husbands and wives must agree to teach each other some of the basic skills they use in everyday life," Butler said. "The wife should teach the husband to do such things as sew on buttons and cook, while the husband should teach the wife how to keep up the checkbook and other basic business procedures."

During the extended period of illness that often precedes the husband's death, the wife how feels she must be by his side around the clock may develop resentment and bitterness toward her husband.

"To avoid this kind of 'cabin fever,' the wife should work out an arrangement with someone to stay with her husband so that she can get out of the house occasionally," Butler said.

"The widow also should not move from her home immediately after her husband dies. She does not need to upset the social fabric of her life so suddenly. She should give herself time to allow all the anniversaries she shared with her husband to pass at least once before she moves to a new home."

Butler also said the wife should know the kind of insurances and pension benefits her husband is entitled to and what her survivor's benefits are likely to be.

When her husband died of cancer 34 years ago, Pauline Long, who had an 8-year-old daughter and a married daughter at the time, had to learn to cope with a life alone.

A hard worker since her childhood, Long found solace in the long hours she put into restaurant work, first as a waitress, later as a restaurant manager and finally as the owner of two restaurants.

After 10 years as a restauranteur, Long said, she left to serve as a Seventh-day Adventist missionary in southern Africa, returning to the United States three years ago.

Long, 77, one of the few residents, in her building who are still physically able to drive an automobile, spends much of her time driving to visit the sick, distributing clothes and food to the needy in Takoma Park, and attempting to inspire despondent senior citizens to enjoy a more active life.

"I don't have time to just sit and rock my life away," said Long, who lives in a 187-unit apartment building where 146 of the 190 residents are single older women. "Some older people are never happy. They complain constantly about everything."

"There are some things about growing older that I don't like," she added, seated by the window in her efficiency apartment in Takoma Park, busily knitting a fringe for a hand towel. "But I try to look at the positive side. kSuppose your arthritis does cause constant pain. There's nothing you can do about it. So you just have to live with it."

"It is commonly believed that most elderly live with other family members but in the case of older women, this is not true," according to a recent study conducted by the Women's Studies Program and Policy Center at George Washington University. "For example, among the most vulberable of elderly women -- those 75 and older -- only 21 percent were wives living with spouses and 20 percent lived with another family member."

"Increasingly, in the families of today both the husband and the wife are out working," said Herman B. Brotman, a former U.S. commissioner on aging and a longtime expert on aging. "The children are in day care and there is neither room in the home nor an available adult who can provide the kind of supervision and care the older woman has traditionally received from the family."

Other experts also say that older persons may occasionally choose not to live with their families because the fast-paced lives of the younger family may tend to be a constant point of frustration for both generations and because their social habits and moral values may differ widely.

In addition, many older women do not live with their children because they have none, according to the experts. Women now in their 70s had the lowest fertility rate of any age group of women in the United States, according to the National Institute on Aging. About 22 percent of those women never gave birth, 23 percent had only one child, and another 22 percent had two children.

"The result of this fertility record is that probably about a fourth of women now over 70 have no living children," a National Institute on Aging report found. "When women of this [age group] would have been having children, the Great Depression of the 1930s occurred."

"We were married during the Depression," said Anna Hamilton, 81, who lives with her dog, Teddy Bear, at the Seventh-day Adventist community service center in Takoma Park. "We lived in the beautiful Catskill Mountains for a while, then Charles insisted we moved to Dayton, Ohio. He got a job in a tire and rubber plant. I studied accounting."

Her husband died in 1965 after bouts with heart ailments and a series of 20 operations. The family's heavy debt led to eventual foreclosure on their new home. And for the first time, Hamilton, who had no children, found herself alone and totally dependent on her husband's Social Security benefits and her own income-earning ability.

Now she works sorting clothes in exchange for a room at the community center. Soon, the church will sell the old center and build a larger, more modern one, where Hamilton said there will be no accommodations for her.

"I really don't know where I'll go," said Hamilton, although center officials said they would try to help her. "I don't necessarily want to live in a nursing home or with a lot of older people. I don't consider myself old. I'm young on the inside. I look in the mirror sometimes and I say to myself, 'That's not me.'"

"It's been hard for me to establish new roots here . . . so many people just passing through," she added. "Most of my friends have died. The ones who are alive are having a little trouble with their brain."

Hamilton said the $112 monthly Social Security check she began to receive after her husband's death has now grown to $400. She has managed to save $4,000 -- about enough, she estimates, to pay for a half year in a retirement community or nursing home.

"Since my husband died there's been a huge vacuum in my life. The hurt never ends," said Hamilton, as she stroked her poodle's off-white coat. "Lately I've missed him dearly. He was handsome . . . looked young for his age.

"Sometimes, when I'm sitting here alone," she continued, "I seem to hear my husband coming through the front door. I get up to go and greet him, but there's nobody there."