JUST HOW MUCH private industry will rise to the charitable challenge of shrinking federal budgets and diminishing social services remains to be seen, but one refreshing local example of a modest yet significant effort is now helping neighborhoods throughout the region. The clients being helped are the elderly residents of Greater Washington, and teamed up to deliver the aid are the National Institute on Aging and Peoples Drug Stores.

As part of a program entitled "Living With Aging," these two organizations are making available free, valuable information and guidance on a variety of topics of special interest to older people. Overseen by Dr. Robert N. Butler, a student of problems of the aging and director of the national institute, and Sheldon W. Fantle, president and chief executive of Peoples, booklets are being distributed in the chain's stores throughout the area. The information, supplied and checked by the institute, covers a range of questions and answers on such topics as how to deal with high blood pressure; nutrition; dental care; safe use of medicines; skin care; tips on finding good medical care; coping with heat and cold; and accident prevention. There is also a guide to other programs and services available to the elderly in each community.

Of course none of this is a substitute for good health care from accessible public clinics or other affordable programs. But given the bleak prospects for the dissemination of helpful government-issue counsel--not to mention the rapidly rising costs of mailing and other forms of distribution--a little publicity and a lot of distribution from a private firm can take on a new importance. No doubt there are other similar projects that could be taken on by various chains and business organizations around town, not primarily or exclusively as forms of advertising--though they are of course that--but also as serious public service efforts