BOB LEVEY wrote recently about a 74-year-old woman in our community who was robbed 21 times before illness drove her to a nursing home. She has security now, but she can no longer usher at the National Theater; she has left her home.

Some will say that Mrs. Sheckles was foolhardy to be out at night in Adams-Morgan, but jobs and perfectly safe neighborhoods are hard to find, especially for the elderly. Although this woman became inured to repeated assaults and clung courageously to a normal life, information collected by the Senate Special Committee on Aging shows for others a broad pattern of fear, caution--and suffering. Some 80 percent of the elderly living in Eastern cities, according to the committee's surveys, say they live in "constant fear"; many exercise extraordinary caution, including locking themselves indoors by mid- afternoon to avoid marauding school-age thugs; yet despite their greater caution, for certain crimes the inner-city elderly are six to ten times more likely to be victims than younger people in non-urban areas. Older blacks are victimized more frequently than older whites by a factor of two for all crimes and by a factor of five for larceny-with-contact (purse- snatching).

The wonderful experts are, to be sure, forever debating not only the causes and solutions, but even the very existence of a problem. Some look at the figures and say there is a crisis in fear, but not in actual proportions of criminal incidents; others suggest that the elderly ought to try harder to avoid danger. (Live in country warehouses, perhaps?) So unreal befuddlement combines with the powerlessness of the victims to keep the problem on the back burner.

This is not a problem of endemic phobia among the aged, but of our apparent inability to come to terms with a social malignancy. Admittedly, the problem is complex, involving demographics, unemployment, neighborhood instability and so forth. But surely we must judge our culture not only by its art, technology and aspirations, but also by the simple dignity and personal security we guarantee the elderly. Many cultures venerate them. We make many of them prisoners in their homes.